17 min read

These Farms Are Breeding Wild Monkeys For The Saddest Reason

“He was literally showing us his ‘product' ... It was just heartbreaking."

The macaque monkey was nursing her baby when a man grabbed her, pinning her arms behind her back and lifting her up from the ground. The baby screamed and wrapped his arms around his mom, struggling to hold onto her. Without use of her arms, all the mom could do was stare down at her baby, and squeeze his tail with her two back feet.

In 2011, photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur watched this scene play out while visiting a macaque breeding facility in Laos, where thousands of macaques are bred for the sole purpose of selling them to scientific research facilities around the world. McArthur and film director Karol Orzechowski had gotten access to this facility by posing at buyers.

Baby macaque holding onto mother
Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals

“We had this story,” McArthur told The Dodo. “We said that Karol was buying them for labs, and he was also buying them for people who wanted to buy them for entertainment. We also said that the reason we wanted to shoot on their property was to see if they were being housed in good conditions, and to take [this information] back to our clients in the U.S.”

McArthur and Orzechowski actually visited three different macaque farms in Laos, and they all had one sad thing in common — the monkeys were kept in horrific conditions.

Macaque breeding facility in Laos
One of the macaque breeding facilities McArthur visited in 2011 | Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals

“These animals are basically just being kept alive,” McArthur said. “They’re not getting much food, and there’s a hierarchy in each cage. So the older monkeys get all the food, and the younger ones are left to scramble and fend for themselves. So there’s a lot of starvation in these cages.”

Not only do the monkeys not get enough to eat, but their cages are filthy — and the workers don’t always remove the bodies of ones who died.

Macaques in breeding facility in Laos
Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals

Warning: Graphic photos below

“They’re standing in shit and urine, and the bodies of some of their cage mates,” McArthur said. “Some of them are really young, and they’re plucking around the floor for food. You see animals with injuries — bloody faces, blindness.”

McArthur could see the fright on every single animal’s face. “They bare their teeth,” she said. “They might charge you and then go into the back of the cage, or they might simply go to the back of the cage.”

Captive macaque mourning dead friend
A captive macaque at a Laos breeding facility mourning the death of a friend | Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals

But she’ll never forget the panic on the baby macaque’s face when the man lifted his mother up, and the baby struggled to hold on.

“He [the man] was literally showing us his ‘product,’” McArthur said. “He opened her mouth to show that her teeth were good, and then did the same thing with her eyes. And when he picked her up, the baby latched onto the mother. It was just heartbreaking. The baby had an expression of obvious terror.”

Captive macaque monkeys at breeding farm
Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals

While the living conditions at these breeding farms were horrific, what awaited the monkeys could actually be considered far worse.

Testing laboratories and universities routinely purchase these monkeys from the overseas breeding facilities, Sarah Kite, director of special projects at Cruelty Free International, told The Dodo. While many different primate species are used in research — such as marmosets, spider monkeys and capuchins — macaques are the most widely traded for scientific purposes.

Macaques in breeding facility in Laos
Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals

The country that exports the most macaques is China — in 2015, Chinese traders exported over 11,000 macaques to the U.S., according to Kite. But other countries like Mauritius, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos supply thousands of macaques each year as well.

While many macaques are bred at facilities like the ones McArthur visited, others are actually captured from the wild, although exporting countries often deny this, according to Kite.

Captive macaque at breeding facility in Laos
A man carrying a captive macaque with the animal's arms pinned behind his back | Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals

“Most countries now claim to not allow the trapping and export of wild-caught long-tailed macaques, although we know that the offspring of wild-caught primates are still exported,” Kite told The Dodo.

Once in the labs, macaques are used for all kinds of experiments — toxicity experiments, organ transplant experiments, infectious disease experiments and Ebola studies — which often result in death, Dr. Theodora Capaldo, executive director of New England Anti-Vivisection Society (NEAVS), told The Dodo.

Harness for lab monkeys
A harness that was used to restrain primates and dogs during research | Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals

“For example, primates will be used in toxicity testing where animals are given high doses of a new chemical or a new product until 50 percent of them die,” Capaldo said. “Or an airplane oxygen mask will be secured to their heads, and they’ll be forced to inhale toxic substances. Then they would be killed and their lungs would be examined.”

Primates are also routinely used in psychological research, such as maternal deprivation and anxiety studies, Capaldo explained.

Monkey in testing lab
A monkey being experimented on in a research lab | Cruelty Free International/R&D

“Babies are torn from their mothers all the time for this kind of research, and that’s a horrific event, for both the mothers and the babies,” Capaldo said.

If the macaques aren’t killed during the testing process itself, they’re euthanized shortly after. While animal rescue groups are sometimes able to save retired research animals, Capaldo points out that these animals are quickly replaced in the labs — after one batch of macaques is euthanized, another is brought in.

Photo of monkey in lab
A photograph of a monkey in a now defunct lab | Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals

“A fortunate few can make it into sanctuary, but there’s no way that we can provide sanctuary for the thousands of monkeys that are right now being used in U.S. labs,” Capaldo said.

Not only are the testing processes traumatic, but the conditions in which monkeys are kept inside the labs are unnatural and stressful, Capaldo explained.

Photo of lab chimp
A photograph of a caged baby chimpanzee at a now-defunct laboratory | Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals

“Primates are extremely social animals,” Capaldo said. “In fact, their survival in the wild depends upon being part of a troop. Yet monkeys are routinely housed separately for the convenience of a laboratory.”

Housing monkeys in solitary cages drives them crazy, and they often start exhibiting stereotypical behaviors.

Monkey being rescued from lab
The rescue of a capuchin monkey who lived in a lab | Jo-Anne McArthur/NEAVS

“You’ll see them jumping in endless hoops in a small cage,” Capaldo said. “You’ll see them biting themselves and doing other self-injurious behaviors. You’ll see them biting at the bars until they crack their own teeth.”

“You know that expression, ‘I was so upset, I wanted to pull my hair out?’” Capaldo added. “Monkeys literally do that. When they’re extremely stressed, they will over-groom to the point where they’re pulling their own hair out.”

Monkey in cage in testing lab
A caged capuchin monkey, rescued from a lab and arriving at a sanctuary | Jo-Anne McArthur/NEAVS

Despite the stress monkeys go through in captivity, they are — and continue to be — one of the most popular animals to use in research.

“They continue research on monkeys because it’s convenient, it’s cheap and it’s the way it’s always been done,” Capaldo said. She also added that macaques are considered to be just the right size for these kinds of experiments.

Macaque monkeys in cage at lab
Caged monkeys in a research lab | Cruelty Free International/R&D

Primates of any kind are also preferred subjects because of their biological similarities to humans, Capaldo explained, although she points out a problem with this line of thinking. Besides being ethically questionable to put macaques through physically and psychologically stressful tests, Capaldo argues that tests involving macaques — or any kind of nonhuman animal — cannot produce reliable data that can be used to help people.

“The results from animal studies do not necessarily apply to what’s going to happen to a human,” Capaldo said. “We know that what happens in a human male is not necessarily applicable to what happens in a human female. So if a male and female human can’t always predict for each other what would happen, then how can we reliably consider a different species to be predictive of what’s going to happen in a human?”

Caged macaques at breeding facility in Laos
Macaques at a breeding facility in Laos | Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals

In 2015, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced that it was no longer necessary to use chimpanzees in biomedical research, and they released their 50 captive chimps to sanctuaries. With this in mind, Capaldo struggles to understand why other primates continue to be used.

“Chimpanzees are our closest genetic relative, and the NIH concluded that they are no longer needed in biomedical research in humans,” Capaldo said. “But that same argument isn’t being transferred to monkeys, which are even less genetically similar [to humans].”

Rescued capuchin in sanctuary
A rescued monkey at Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary in Florida | Jo-Anne McArthur/NEAVS

But it’s just not primates Capaldo wants to see pulled from research — it’s all animals, including dogs, cats, pigs, rabbits and rats.

“Animal research is at best a poor model,” Capaldo said. “It’s always a flawed model, and it’s often a dangerous model, and no researcher would deny that. Their argument would be, ‘Well, we have no choice. This is how we need to do it.’ But there are better approaches.”

Macaque in breeding facility
Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals

After visiting the macaque breeding farms in Laos, McArthur published her photographs, and Orzechowski went on to produce “Maximum Tolerated Dose,” a documentary about the cruelty of animal testing. The duo also worked with Cruelty Free International to submit information to the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to help end the exportation of long-tailed macaques from Laos.

“In 2016, CITES recommended that all country members suspend trade in long-tailed macaques from Laos,” Kite said. “This move effectively stopped Laos from exporting these monkeys for animal research. The ban will be in place until Laos complies with CITES regulations.”

Captive macaques in breeding facility
Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals

Two of the three macaque breeding facilities McArthur visited subsequently closed down, McArthur explained, but many others like them are still out there.

While a lot of work still needs to be done to help macaques and other primates sold to research laboratories, McArthur remains optimistic that things will change — and she hopes that her photographs provide a window into these animals’ lives.

Captive macaques at breeding facility
Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals

“We often think of lab animals within the lab, but what was their life like before that time?” McArthur said. “These are portraits of their former lives — this is where they came from, this is where they were bred. Some of these animals are also wild-caught, which is even worse. They knew freedom. They knew trees and family and choice, and then they were put into these hellholes.”

“The lives of these animals are so completely unassociated with the products we use, and that’s why I take these images to make the connection between A and B,” she added. “Their lives are worth considering.”

Captive macaque in breeding facility
Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals
There are many ways to help macaques and other primates used in research labs — you can write to your legislators or NIH to demand science that doesn’t involve animal testing. You can also urge Air France to stop transporting animals for the research industry, and sign this petition to put pressure on the Mauritian government to stop exporting thousands of monkeys for the research industry.

For more information about animal testing and what you can do to stop it, visit New England Anti-Vivisection Society (NEAVS) and Cruelty Free International.