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November 21st, 2007 12:00 am Krista Stryker | News Stories

Monkey Ethics

PETA vs. the Primate Research Center: We ask the New York Times’ ethics columnist to weigh in.


The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals announced last week it had infiltrated the Oregon National Primate Research Center in Hillsboro for the second time in 10 years.

PETA’s unidentified mole stayed for four months gathering photos and videos documenting what PETA classifies as rampant and routine violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act.

WW has gone undercover before to learn more about a story (see “Chop Shop,” WW , May 2, 2007). But we were intrigued by the ethics questions raised by PETA’s operation, because its operative came in with a clear view beforehand—that any research using animals is inherently wrong.

We asked PETA spokeswoman Kathy Guillermo to explain PETA’s reasoning, then got a response from research center spokesman Jim Newman.

Finally, we asked “The Ethicist” himself, Randy Cohen—whose New York Times column appears in 40 papers in Canada and the U.S., including The Oregonian —to try and make sense of it all.

1. What were your reasons for doing it?


There’s no other way to find out what’s going on at the center.

Research center:

The public should be skeptical of any information PETA provides, because it’s a biased organization with an agenda set on ending all animal research.

Randy Cohen:

There are two ethical criteria to justify an undercover investigation: (a) There must be no other way to get the information, and (b) The information must be of great significance to the community. PETA’s point that it’s ethically acceptable to go undercover is “justified only as a last resort,” Cohen says. He finds the research center’s point about PETA being biased less persuasive, saying there’s a whole body of information you can only get by going undercover. “Either someone in an organization comes forward anonymously,” Cohen says, “or you go undercover, and both ways involve deception.”

2. Do you think you crossed an ethical line by misrepresenting yourself?


No, it had to be done because the animals can’t speak for themselves. And PETA will keep putting people undercover, because there’s no other way to find out the information.

Research center:

Yes, PETA did. “If you take a job and you have an agenda of trying to end medical research, anything you say is tainted,” Newman says, adding that PETA’s actions were unnecessary because “rigorous” federal review processes of the center are already in place. “Every single time PETA has accused us of something, it’s investigated, and every single time it’s found to be that we’re not doing anything wrong.”

Randy Cohen:

“PETA had reason to believe that these animals are being mistreated, and they wanted to find out if that was true,” Cohen says. “If their task was to find out what was going on inside, then it’s justified.” But he adds that PETA is too quick to dismiss the ethical implications of its actions. “There’s a real cost here. When they put someone undercover like this, they betray the trust of their employer, their co-workers, and the community. That’s a real price to be paid and that should not be done lightly,” he says. “If there’s really sound review already in place, and there should be in any research that involves potential suffering, then PETA’s actions would be unnecessary.”

3. Was it worth it?


“Of course,” Guillermo says. PETA hopes its investigation will at least force the research center to comply with animal rights laws.

Research center:

No. Federal regulators should have the final decision on animal rights laws, not PETA.

Randy Cohen:

He finds PETA’s argument more persuasive, because many laws have been changed in the past because of advocacy groups like PETA. Cohen says there are many large institutions where one might suspect wrongdoing that can only be discovered by putting someone undercover. He reiterates that the info must be otherwise unattainable and be important for the community to know, noting, “It’s sometimes necessary.”
FACT: The primate research center houses more than 4,000 monkeys.
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