The Silver Spring Monkeys: The Case That Launched PETA

In the summer of 1981, PETA’s founder, Ingrid Newkirk, leafed through the pages of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s list of laboratories, picked the closest one, and asked her colleague, Alex, to see if he could get inside. He did and began working as a volunteer at the Institute for Behavioral Research (IBR). IBR was a federally funded laboratory in Silver Spring, Maryland, now closed down for reasons that will soon become apparent. It was run out of a warehouse by psychologist and animal experimenter Edward Taub, a man with no medical training. There, we found 17 monkeys living in tiny rusty wire cages caked with years of accumulated feces in a dungeon-like room. There was no veterinarian to tend to their serious wounds, and they had a lot of them.

Taub, who also had no veterinary training, nevertheless subjected the monkeys to surgeries in which he severed their spinal nerves, rendering one or more of their limbs useless. By means of electric shock, food deprivation, and other cruel methods, he forced them to try to regain the use of their impaired limbs to pick up raisins from a tray—or else go without food. In one experiment, monkeys were shut inside a converted refrigerator and repeatedly electro-shocked until they finally used their disabled arm, if they could. The inside of the refrigerator was covered with blood. In another experiment, monkeys were strapped into a crude restraint chair—their waist, ankles, wrists, and neck held in place with packing tape—and pliers were latched as tightly as possible onto their skin, including on their testicles.

At the Institute for Behavioral Research, monkeys were subjected to debilitating surgeries in which their spinal nerves were severed, rendering one or more of their limbs useless.
Monkeys were strapped into a homemade restraint chair—their waist, ankles, wrists, and neck kept immobile—and used in “acute noxious stimuli” tests in which they were deliberately subjected to painful procedures.
This is Sarah. When she was 1 day old, she was purchased by IBR from another laboratory. She had been confined to the same tiny barren cage at IBR for eight years.
Billy, the gentlest of the monkeys, had undergone surgery that rendered both of his arms devoid of feeling, making it nearly impossible to use them. There were no food dishes in the lab, and when food was tossed into his cage, he would bend over and frantically try to eat it from the floor before it fell through the wires.
Billy had lost eight of his 10 fingers. Here, his mutilated hand grasps at a human hand.
Chester’s left leg had been rendered useless through a spinal surgery. Years of confinement, deprivation, and trauma had left him in a state of extreme psychological distress.
A monkey huddles inside his 18-inch-wide cage. He is missing all the fingers on his right hand.
One of the monkeys, Paul, had chewed a hole in his debilitated limb and then ripped the skin and muscle out, exposing the bone. The rotting bandage was never changed.
Monkeys were placed in this “conditioning chamber”—a sound- and light-proof converted refrigerator fitted with a plexiglass restraining device—with electrodes taped to one of their limbs. The monkeys were then repeatedly shocked until they used their disabled arm, if they could.
Workers used a choke rod to move monkeys from their cages to the conditioning chamber. This monkey’s arms and legs had been shaved for the electrodes.
Workers often neglected to feed the monkeys, and the animals would desperately pick through the waste at the bottom of their cages trying to find food.
Filth and excrement encrusted the wires of the cages. There was mold growing on this pile of feces.
Two monkeys stretch their arms through the bars of their cages, desperate for social contact.
Items on Edward Taub’s desk at IBR included a monkey’s skull and a monkey’s severed hand. The hand was used as a paperweight.


The trauma of the monkeys’ imprisonment and treatment was so severe that many of them had ripped at their own flesh, and they had lost many of their fingers from catching them in the rusted, jagged cage bars. Workers often neglected to feed the monkeys, and the animals would desperately pick through the stinking urine and fecal waste in trays beneath their cages to find something to eat.

PETA gathered meticulous log notes detailing what was happening inside IBR and secretly photographed the crippled monkeys and their horrendous living conditions. Then, after lining up expert witnesses and showing them around the laboratory at night, PETA took the evidence to the police—and an intense, decade-long battle for custody of the monkeys ensued.

This groundbreaking investigation led to the nation’s first arrest and criminal conviction of an animal experimenter for cruelty to animals, the first confiscation of abused animals from a laboratory, and the first U.S. Supreme Court victory for animals used in experiments. It even led to landmark additions to the Animal Welfare Act—and unrelenting public scrutiny of the abuse that animals endure in experimentation. And IBR closed its doors.

PETA has scored many victories for animals in laboratories since the landmark Silver Spring monkeys case, but tragically, experiments like this still go on. You can help by asking your congressional representatives to divert public money from cruel animal experiments into promising, lifesaving, and relevant clinical and non-animal research.

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