Volkswagen's abuse of monkeys in tests draws fire

Peter Singer
Today, organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals continue to highlight how millions of animals – including monkeys – suffer in unnecessary experiments.
Peter Singer

LATE last month, the New York Times reported that researchers used monkeys to test the effects of inhaling diesel fumes from a Volkswagen. The research was commissioned by the European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector, an organization funded entirely by three big German car manufacturers: Volkswagen, Daimler, and BMW.

The reaction to this revelation has been unequivocal repudiation of the use of the monkeys.

Could the vehemence of the response indicate a tectonic shift in ethical attitudes toward animals? To answer that question requires examining some details about the experiments and the reaction to them.

The research, carried out in Albuquerque, New Mexico, involved placing 10 monkeys in small airtight containers into which, over a period of four hours, the exhaust fumes were piped. Later, a tube was stuck down the monkeys’ throats to take tissue samples from their lungs.

It is clear that the experiments were extremely distressing for the monkeys. The Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, a manual of good practice for those who use animals in research — published by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and now in its eighth edition — states: “Like all social animals, nonhuman primates should normally have social housing.” These monkeys were confined in individual chambers and forced to breathe polluted air, including exhaust fumes from an older Ford truck, which was supposed to enable a comparison with the cleaner Volkswagen. A video of the experiments included in the Netflix documentary “Dirty Money” shows a monkey in a state of panic, pawing at the window of the chamber in a desperate effort to escape.

Making matters worse, we now know that the only results the experiments could have yielded would have been misleading. Unknown to Jake McDonald, the scientist who oversaw the research, the Volkswagen that was used to produce the exhaust gases had software installed that reduced emissions under laboratory testing conditions, so the results could not provide reliable information on the health hazards of the car’s emissions during normal driving. No wonder McDonald told the Times: “I feel like a chump.”

The reaction to the news about the research was swift.

Two days after the story broke, the Volkswagen Group tweeted that it “explicitly distances itself from all forms of animal cruelty. Animal testing contradicts our own ethical standards.” Over the next two days, criticism mounted.

I have been arguing against the way we treat animals for the past 45 years, yet I have never seen such categorical repudiation of experiments on animals by senior corporate executives and government spokespeople as we are witnessing in Germany now.

If the reactions had condemned Volkswagen for seeking to mislead the public by supplying the researchers with a rigged car, I would not have been surprised. But Volkswagen’s use of “defeat devices” in its cars to cheat on emissions tests has been known since 2015. It is the abuse of the monkeys that is driving the condemnations, and the desire of the companies to distance themselves from the research.

Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.