She experimented on primates for decades. Now she wants to shut down the labs

“Right here! Beneath our feet! Are 300 monkeys! They haven’t seen sunshine! In years!”

Lisa Jones-Engel stands outside the entrance to the Washington National Primate Research Center along with two dozen other protesters – most 30 years younger than she. Her long gray-blond ponytail tucked over one shoulder, she yells into a megaphone. As she shouts, another part of her brain is thinking: “God, you sound like a fucking activist. You sound like one of them.”

If you had told Jones-Engel she’d be doing this two years earlier, she would have been horrified. She was a PhD, a primatologist – a scientist, for God’s sake, not some silly monkey-hugger who reduced sophisticated issues to summer-camp chants.

She had worked at NYU’s Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates, and then at the University of Washington’s primate research center, one of eight national primate centers created in the 1960s. She’d spent decades in the field, trapping and sampling macaques and other primates across Asia on prestigious grants, publishing her research in top journals, co-authoring a book on monkey diseases, building expertise and credibility.

But now here she was wearing a garish monkey mask on a sidewalk in Seattle, feeling both energized and profoundly uncomfortable to be part of this spectacle. She told herself to buck up.

She had been trying so hard for so long to make things better for the animals in her care, the monkeys used in biomedical research. She’d made the calm, reasoned arguments; she’d sat on her university’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). But every time she questioned a protocol or requested information, even simple questions like whether animals in a study were age- and sex-matched, she was stonewalled and disrespected, painted as a troublemaker rather than as a concerned researcher.

So in late 2019 she took a drastic and irrevocable step: she said yes to a job at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) as a senior science adviser, a move she never would have predicted when she started her career.

She made herself a promise: she would shut down the country’s seven remaining primate centers within the next 10 years.

She just might do it, too.

In 2019, the last year for which research is available, more than 108,000 monkeys were held and/or used in experiments in US labs, along with nearly 200,000 guinea pigs, 58,000 dogs, 18,000 cats and millions of mice and rats. The Environmental Protection Agency hopes to eliminate the use of vertebrates in animal testing by 2035. (Few people care what researchers do to insects or other invertebrates.)

Controversy over the use of animals in research goes back to at least 18th-century Europe, when philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau began to argue that animals had rights. That controversy accelerated in the 1960s when the US National Institutes of Health established its primate centers program and medical researchers began relying on non-human primates.

More than 108,000 monkeys were held in US labs as of 2019.
More than 108,000 monkeys were held in US labs as of 2019. Photograph: Lynn Johnson

In this century, researchers and animal rights activists typically occupy antipodal corners of the ethical landscape. In one corner, the world of biomedical research insists that animals are crucial in developing new treatments for humans, that their pain is properly overseen and mitigated, that research gains are a fair tradeoff for their suffering.

In the other, animal rights activists say that fewer than 5% of animal trials translate to viable human treatments – and the National Institutes of Health agrees. They also say that thousands of lab animals suffer and die needlessly, that there are other options for research, that humans have no moral or ethical right to use other species in these ways.

Monkeypox, a viral cousin of smallpox that’s currently spreading in the US and Europe, has long been associated with primates shipped to research laboratories. “There are so many monkeys pouring into Us airports of entry,” says Jones-Engel. Last week, for instance, she heard from a whistleblower about an EgyptAir cargo flight that took off from Cambodia with a hold full of “almost certainly diseased” longtailed macaques, which were trucked 1800 miles across the country to Texas after landing.

“Anything and everything these monkeys were exposed to or infected with as they move along this ‘supply chain’ has the potential to spill over into humans,” she says.

The activist perspective got a boost from the accelerated development of the Covid-19 vaccines, made possible in part because animal trials were conducted at the same time as human trials instead of sequentially. To some, this proves that animal trials are an unnecessary formality.

For decades, Jones-Engel identified as a researcher, starting in high school, when she volunteered for seven months at anthropologist Birute Galdikas’ research camp in Indonesia. Galdikas studies orangutans, but she asked Jones-Engel to spend time with the wild macaques living in swamps around the camp. Sometimes Jones-Engel paddled a dugout canoe, but mostly she slogged through muck up to her armpits. “She never once came out dry,” says Galdikas with admiration. “She was courageous.”

For more than 30 years, Jones-Engel followed macaques, building a database of blood, fecal, and other samples from more than 1,000 individual monkeys. She likes to think of herself as a macaque, actually: smart, social, good at foraging, protective. “God help you if you look sideways at one of my juvies,” she says. She’s only partly joking.

Still, she scoffed at animal rights activists. “They didn’t understand that there are decent people who think one of the highest callings is to care for an animal in a laboratory setting,” she explains now, referencing her former beliefs. Primate researchers thought “animal activists are crazy, destructive, dangerous, ignorant folks, and we are scientists. Get back, you fools, and let us do our work.”

That was a comfortable position for an ambitious scientist like Jones-Engel – for a while. But her thinking began to shift over time, especially after she converted to Judaism in 1994, when she was five months pregnant with twin daughters.

She and her husband, Gregory Engel, host weekly Shabbat dinners at their homes in Seattle and Barrow, Alaska, where he practices medicine. Those dinners include a diverse groups of friends, neighbors and strays. “One of the things I do as a Jew is build community, bring together people who need it, whether they know it or not,” she says. “When I see monkeys in individual cages, I see you’ve taken away the thing that’s most important to a macaque. You’ve taken away their ability to have a relationship.”

Then 10 years ago, she was driving around Zorargonj, Bangladesh, looking for monkeys to sample, when she saw a man walking a monkey on a leash and asked her colleague to pull over. She opened the van door and the monkey bolted into the van and grabbed her cheeks. Holy shit, she thought. Am I going to lose my face?

Jones-Engel with a money in Bangladesh.
Lisa Jones-Engel in Bangladesh in 2014, where she gathered biological samples from monkey owners and their animals. Photograph: Lynn Johnson

Instead, the monkey put her nose and mouth right up to Jones-Engel’s, almost but not quite touching, and for the next 30 seconds they stayed like that – two primates sharing breath in the humid air. Then the monkey let her go. The owner told her she could to go ahead and take a sample, but Jones-Engel couldn’t. At that moment, there was no way she could have caused that monkey even a second’s pain or discomfort.

Two months later, Jones-Engel was trapping monkeys in a Bangladeshi village. She had caught a dozen screaming animals, including a mother and infant; she’d anesthetized them, taken samples, let them wake up and released them.

The monkeys fled, except for the infant, who was still clutching the netting. His mother, realizing he was gone, turned and ran back into the trap to get him. Watching her put herself back into danger for her baby’s sake, Jones-Engel had a revelation.

“Like any mother, she was willing to do whatever she had to do to get her baby,” she remembers. “As a mother, I knew what it cost her. And I just went … wow, I can’t experiment on them any more because they’re so like us.”

That observation – they’re just like us – is in some ways the paradox at the heart of the debate about primates in research. Psychologist John Gluck, now a research professor at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University, articulates that paradox in his book Voracious Science & Vulnerable Animals: when researchers want to extrapolate their animal results to humans, they emphasize the similarities between animals and humans, he explains. But when they want to justify research that causes pain, fear, or death – protocols that would never be approved for humans – they emphasize the differences.

In other words, we can learn from them because they’re just like us; we can experiment on them because they’re not like us.

Jones-Engel was already grappling with that paradox when she read Gluck’s book in 2017 and flew out to meet him. He encouraged her to accept a seat on the University of Washington’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), where she spent the next two years trying to navigate the opposing worlds of animal research and animal care.

She quickly grew frustrated at expectations that the committee would rubber-stamp research rather than interrogate it. Her requests for more information on a protocol or for a review of a study’s design were routinely denied. She was branded as a troublemaker, causing tension between her and the committee’s chair, Jane Sullivan, and eventually she resigned from the university and the committee. (Like others at the university, Sullivan declined to be interviewed for this story.)

One thing that set her apart from other researchers on the committee was her deep knowledge of animals in the wild. Most researchers know their mice or monkeys only as captives, never as independent, competent, free creatures.

Woman with a monkey
Lisa Jones-Engel in Bangladesh in 2007. Photograph: Lynn Johnson

“If you have someone who’s in prison their whole life, they’re not an average person,” says John Ioannidis, a professor of medicine at Stanford who has written about the limitations of animal research. “These primates live in a very weird environment, in a cage, isolated, and under tremendous stress.”

It’s all too easy to see those animals as research tools rather than independent beings. “If you’re working with animals constantly in a cage, you don’t have a sense of their spirit. They’re not equal to you,” says Birute Galdikas.

But Jones-Engel’s months in the swamps with wild macaques and her years as a field biologist taught her how monkeys ate and groomed and slept, the way they built social hierarchies, how they solved problems and made choices. Her understanding gave her a different level of respect and compassion for lab monkeys. She wanted to do better by them. She felt she owed it to them. “The high holy days are tough, let’s put it that way,” she jokes. “I got a lot of macaques to atone to.”

She knew the moral argument wouldn’t fly, so she tried the science. Over the last 20 years there’s been growing awareness of the ways in which the conditions of lab animals’ lives affect them, and therefore affect research results. “Imagine what it’s like for this monkey to be alone in this cage,” she says. “That aloneness has all these downstream implications for the animal, for their mental wellbeing and their physical wellbeing.” Caged monkeys are also prone to diseases like TB, malaria, MRSA, and salmonella; their immune systems are compromised by stress, pain and isolation. High levels of infectious diseases like Chagas, valley fever and TB have been found in breeding colonies.

Jones-Engel thought scientists would want to be aware of these issues and the way they compromise scientific findings. They might help explain why only a tiny percentage of animal studies translate to clinical benefits for humans. “Monkeys are not furry little humans,” she says.

But even through the lens of improving the science, she couldn’t get her colleagues to listen.

“Lisa is a thoughtful person,” acknowledges Shiu-Lok Hu, a former colleague and virologist at UW. “But the animal model we use is a surrogate model, and is not a valid way to predict outcomes in human trials.” In other words, animal research focuses on asking questions for the sake of pure science rather than finding practical treatments for people.

A Peta protest
Lisa Jones-Engel at one of her first Peta protests, on the University of Washington campus near the building that houses the animal research lab. Photograph: Lynn Johnson

“I tell my students, 99% of the time things don’t work,” says Hu. “You have to learn from those failures. You can say if 99% of the experiments don’t work, why do them? That would be the wrong way to approach it.” Like many other animal researchers, he deflects questions about the ethics of putting animals through pain for the sake of pure research. For instance, when asked whether keeping animals in cages and experimenting on them was by definition harming them, he responded, “Well yes. And no. I don’t know.”

Rationalizations like this frustrate Jones-Engel. “At what point are we asking too much from the animals?” she says. She thought she could change things from within the system, and her failure nearly broke her.

When I first spoke with her years ago, she commented: “If you stand with science, you wear the mantle of the scientist. If you stand with the animal rights movement, you wear the mantle of the advocate, the moral, ethical person. I have one foot on either side because I understand both sides. And it is a horrible place to be.”

These days, the horrible place is mostly a memory. Jones-Engel looks forward to work, to opening her email in-box to see if one of her many Freedom of Information Act requests has come through. She knows what other scientists think of Peta – that it’s at best naive and at worst propagates lies – and actually, she sometimes agrees.

At the protest, for example, she heard other activists talking about storming in and releasing the monkeys, and thought, no, no, that’s a really bad idea! A few minutes later she heard someone chanting “We’re here today! At UW! Where they’re killing babies!” The hyperbole made her want to curl up and die.

But she also believes the hyperbole forces people to pay attention in ways they otherwise would not. The organization has taken heat for running media campaigns juxtaposing images of animal abuse with images of slavery, or comparing the pain of Jews during the Holocaust with the suffering of factory-farmed animals. “We’re all animals,” Jones-Engel explains. “We all suffer. And Peta doesn’t shy away from putting that right out there in your face. It can be shocking, and I believe that’s Peta’s intent.”

Lisa Jones-Engel in Cambodia 2011.
Lisa Jones-Engel in Cambodia 2011. Photograph: Lynn Johnson

That’s part of the reason she feels she has found her troop. “One of the things I take probably undue pleasure in is that you really can’t tell Peta no,” she says. “If you do, Peta will draft a lawsuit and drop it on your doorstep. They’ll put together a TV ad and start running it.” Once the organization takes on an issue, its commitment is absolute. For Jones-Engel, that’s worth letting go of the prestige, the adrenaline and the other trappings of her former calling. She’s making peace with the idea that she can never go back now.

There’s relief in letting go, in standing squarely on the side of animal rights, in using her scientific background and knowledge for what she sees as a higher purpose. Her work is as much a calling as science with a capital S ever was. “If you truly look,” she says simply, “it is the rare person who can then not see.”

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