Box 1 | The case of Dr Edward Taub

From the following article:

Animal experimentation: the continuing debate

Mark Matfield

Nature Reviews Drug Discovery 1, 149-152 (February 2002)

doi:10.1038/nrd727

In May 1981, Dr Edward Taub of the Institute of Behavioural Research at Silver Spring, Maryland, allowed a political science major at George Washington University, named Alex Pacheco, to work in his laboratory. Taub was studying the somatosensory apparatus, trying to determine whether primates could re-learn the use of deafferented limbs. Pacheco volunteered to work in Taub's laboratory, claiming to be interested in medical research. In fact, Pacheco was one of the founders of a tiny protest group called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which had been organizing protests outside the National Institutes of Health (NIH) only weeks before. Pacheco's colleagues in PETA decided to send him to infiltrate Taub's laboratory and expose what they considered to be cruel and unnecessary experiments12.

Animal experimentation: the continuing debate 

In September that year, Pacheco made a series of allegations that resulted in Taub's arrest and 119 charges. Of these charges, 113 were dismissed at the first court case, 5 more in the second case, and the last charge was overturned 2 years later13. With the string of court cases and media attention, the whole situation became a cause célèbre. The NIH started an investigation and suspended Taub's research funding. The primates were seized by the police, were allegedly kidnapped by PETA, returned, handed back to Taub, then almost immediately remanded to the NIH Animal Centre in Poolesville. Their custody and fate became the subject of a series of court cases that lasted for more than a decade12.

PETA used the case of the 'Silver Spring Monkeys' as a springboard to national attention, eventually building itself into being the leading animal-rights organization in the United States. Indeed, it has been described as “...probably the most aggressive aboveground animal-rights organisation in the world”12. Alex Pacheco has been Director or Chairman of PETA for most of its existence.

Despite the fact that three leading scientific organizations (the American Psychological Society, the Society for Neuroscience and The American Physiological Society) held separate investigations into the allegations against Taub and each vindicated him, the controversy and the damage to his reputation delayed his research for most of the decade that followed the infiltration. Taub himself was left without a job, as his salary depended on his research funding, and, being at the centre of the controversy, he found it difficult to secure another position. After being without a post for five years, he was eventually offered a position at the University of Alabama13. This gave him the opportunity to translate his findings from the primate studies to stroke patients, and he developed the method of constraint-induced movement therapy to restore the use of affected limbs in stroke victims14. (Photo courtesy of Dr Edward Taub.)