There's an old joke: "How many baby monkeys do you have take from their mothers to prove that maternal deprivation is harmful?" The answer: "As many as the NIH will pay for." The joke is old because it refers to the 1970s work of Harry Harlow, who removed primate infants from their mothers and housed them with cloth or mechanical surrogates. Some of the surrogates were programmed to abuse the infants, periodically jabbing them with sharp implements. Harlow may be most famous for placing baby monkeys in what he blithely termed the "pit of despair," a dark chamber in which they were entirely isolated for a year. The psychological damage incurred was permanent, not rectifiable by subsequent care and socialization. We learned much from Harlow about the effect of abuse and neglect, at great cost to the monkeys and to our humanity. Most disturbing was that once the devastating results were well demonstrated, the experiments continued for years, begetting the joke above.
More recently, however, Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees at universities have made it somewhat harder to get funding for experiments when the benefit to humans is not expected to outweigh the suffering of the animal subjects. But people intent on scientific progress can devise ways to get around the committees that deal with morality. At the University of Madison in Wisconsin, decades after Harlow did his work there, the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee has approved a proposal submitted by the psychiatry department chairman, Dr. Ned Kalin, for further maternal-deprivation studies. An article published by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reveals that two years ago an almost identical protocol was never executed, partly due to internal opposition, including the objection of two committee members. This time round the protocol was not seen by members of the committee who had previously objected; supporters sent it to a subset of the committee, who gave it unanimous consent.