The Investigation that Sparked a Movement

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3 min read

It has been exactly 30 years since PETA’s historic Silver Spring monkeys case thrust the animal rights movement into mainstream consciousness in the summer of 1981. PETA’s first undercover investigation led to many other firsts—the first search-and-seizure warrant to be served on a U.S. laboratory, the first confiscation from a laboratory of abused animals, and the first cruelty-to-animals conviction of an experimenter.

Those 17 macaque monkeys carried much of the weight of the animal rights movement on their backs. When we found the Silver Spring monkeys at the Institute for Behavioral Research in Silver Spring, Maryland, many of them were being used in a crude experiment in which their spinal nerves were severed, making it difficult or impossible for them to move one of their arms. The experimenter, Edward Taub, starved them, used surgical pliers to pinch their skin, and gave them electric shocks to try to force them to use their disabled limbs to get food. They had lost most of the fur on their tails to malnutrition.

The trauma of the cruel, invasive experiments and intense confinement to rusty, broken, and mold- and feces-encrusted cages was so severe that many of them had ripped off their own flesh and were left to suffer from open, festering wounds. Many of the monkeys had lost their fingers to the jagged, broken, and rusty wires that protruded into the tiny, uncomfortable space where they had to sit and lie.

PETA pursued the Silver Spring monkeys case for more than a decade—all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Although we prevailed in getting some of the monkeys into a group indoor/outdoor space away from public view at the San Diego Zoo, some of them—including Augustus, for whom PETA’s Augustus donor club is named—were turned over to another laboratory, anesthetized, experimented on, and killed.

But because the Silver Spring monkeys case forced the cruelty of animal experimentation into the spotlight, it paved the way for many victories for animals. In 1993, PETA persuaded General Motors to become the first company to stop using animals in automobile crash tests, and other companies soon followed until those horrendous experiments were eradicated. At PETA’s urging, Revlon and Estée Lauder became the first mainstream corporations to end animal testing, and since then more than 950 household, cosmetics, and personal-care companies have followed suit. And just in the past year, after another PETA investigation, animal testing hellhole Professional Laboratory and Research Services, Inc., shut its doors and surrendered its animals, and four of its workers were indicted on felony cruelty-to-animals charges (another first for animals in laboratories). 

The Silver Spring monkeys (and some of the people who helped rescue them) are all at peace now, but their legacy will continue to lead to more groundbreaking changes for animals for many years to come.


Written by Michelle Sherrow

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