Monkey mother seen holding the hand of her child in the cage Jana Cavojska/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Volkswagen’s Monkeys

Could the vehemence of the response to revelations of the carmaker's experiments on the effects of diesel exhaust 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.

MELBOURNE – 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.

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The reaction to this revelation has been unequivocal repudiation – by the public, the German government, and Volkswagen itself – of the use of the monkeys. Why? 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 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, involved placing ten 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. At a meeting in Brussels, Volkswagen Group CEO Matthias Müller addressed the experiments, saying that the European Research Group’s methods were “totally wrong.” He added: “There are things you just do not do.” Thomas Steg, Volkswagen’s chief lobbyist, told a German newspaper: “We want to absolutely rule out testing on animals for the future so that this doesn’t happen again.” This didn’t help Steg himself, whom Volkswagen promptly suspended.

The other funders of the European Research Group quickly distanced themselves from the experiment. Daimler said that it was “appalled” by the studies, and would investigate them. BMW said that it did not participate in the research. Representatives of General Motors, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler said that they do not test the effects of emissions on humans or animals.

The public response to the experiments reached a level that even the German government could not ignore. Steffen Seibert, a spokesperson for Chancellor Angela Merkel, said that “the disgust many people are feeling is absolutely understandable,” and that the tests on monkeys “can in no way be ethically justified.”

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.

It is not news that animals suffer in painful and unnecessary experiments. In every edition of Animal Liberation since the original in 1975, I described dozens of experiments in which the suffering of animals was severe and the likelihood of any significant benefit to human health or wellbeing was as remote as it was in the Volkswagen experiments. Today, organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals continue to highlight how millions of animals – including monkeys – suffer in unnecessary experiments.

Nearly three million animals are used in experiments in Germany each year. If Volkswagen, Daimler, BMW, and the German government are saying that experiments like those commissioned by the European Research Group to test the health impact of diesel exhaust are unethical, then many other experiments also fail to meet the same ethical standard.

What has changed, gradually and over several decades, is concern for animals. A 2015 Gallup poll showed that almost one in three Americans agreed with the statement that animals should be given the same rights as people, while nearly all the rest (62%) thought that animals should be given some protection. In Germany, 89% of those polled said that they oppose animal testing that causes pain and suffering. In several other European nations, including France, Italy, and the United Kingdom, opposition was also above 80%.

No car manufacturer or other corporation that values its brand can afford to alienate 80% of its potential customers. If, as Merkel’s spokesperson said, the use of monkeys to test the safety of emissions from diesel engines “can in no way be ethically justified,” it becomes possible to hope that the end of painful experiments on animals is not far away.

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