The Moral Lives of Laboratory Monkeys: Television and the Ethics of Care
by Leslie Sharp
Why do lab monkeys watch TV? This essay examines the preponderance of televisions in primate housing units based in academic research laboratories. Within such labs, television and related visual media are glossed as part-and-parcel of welfare or species-specific enrichment practices intended for research monkeys, a logic that is simultaneously historically- and ontologically-based. In many research centers, television figures prominently in the two inseparable domains of a lab monkey's life: as a research tool employed during experiments, and in housing units where captive monkeys are said to enjoy watching TV during "down time." My purpose is not to determine whether monkeys do indeed enjoy, or need, television; rather, I employ visual media as a means to uncover, and decipher, the moral logic of an ethics of care directed specifically at highly sentient creatures who serve as human proxies in a range of experimental contexts. I suggest that this specialized ethics of animal care materializes Mattingly's notion of "moral laboratories" (Mattingly in Moral laboratories: family peril and the struggle for a good life, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2014), where television mediates the troublesome boundary of species difference among the simian and human subjects who cohabit laboratory worlds.