The photograph is a startling image: a monkey held upright in a crude frame fashioned from pipes, the animal’s arms and legs splayed out from its body, ankles and wrists bound by tape.

Institute for Behavioral Research, Silver Spring, Maryland, 1981

A clamp affixed to its abdomen holds the ape’s trunk immobile, another around its neck, secured by a C-clamp, fixes its face upward toward the ceiling. Prominently tattooed on its chest is the number 25. Were the photograph created as an artwork it would hold its own alongside the iconic photo by Andres Serrano titled Piss Christ (a crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s urine), ironically also funded by a government grant, just as the monkey’s circumstances were supported by the National Institutes of Health.

According to Alex Pacheco who took the photo in the fall of 1981, the monkey’s name was Domitian; one of seventeen apes at the Institute for Behavioral Research (IBR) in Silver Spring, Maryland, that had been surgically crippled (a procedure known as “deafferentation”) by severing the sensory nerves to their limbs at the spinal cord (in Domitian’s case the left arm had been rendered useless). Restraint, electric shock, and withholding of food were then used to force the monkeys to try and use those limbs, to see if the neural pathways would regenerate.

Pacheco was a seasoned animal-rights activist when he arrived at the lab. (He had participated in animal rights protests in college, and crewed on the infamous anti-whaling ship Sea Shepard.) Living in Washington D.C., he volunteered to work at IBR on the night shift and was given keys. Finding that the monkeys were in poor health due to lack of veterinary care and living in squalid conditions, he set out to build a case against the lab’s director Dr. Edward Taub for cruelty to animals.

Pacheco photographed what he saw, copied lab documents and over a period of weeks snuck five primate experts and veterinarians inside to see the conditions firsthand and write affidavits testifying to what they’d observed. He took his evidence to the local police who obtained a warrant and raided the lab, seized 17 monkeys and carted away lab files. Alerted by a tip, a camera crew filmed the raid. The footage, broadcast on the CBS evening news, showed 17 cages, each holding a bewildered monkey, being carted from the building and placed in the back of a van bearing a hand lettered sign reading “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.” The reporter noted it was the first time the monkeys had seen natural light and fresh air since their capture in the Philippines years before.


©Mike McLeod, 2012

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