Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Response to "Opinions, evidence, and anti-research agendas", by Amanda Dettmer

Welcome to the resurrection of BLOG LaFleur!

This special post is in response to a blog entry published on September 2, 2016 by the website Speaking of Research. The post was authored by Dr. Amanda Dettmer and entitled “Opinions, evidence, and anti-research agendas: A recap of a session at the American Society of Primatologists/International Primatological Society Meeting 2016”.

I was a co-organizer and panelist in this International Primatological Society (IPS)/American Society of Primatologists (ASP) roundtable session, and I will respond to Dr. Dettmer’s main criticisms and her question of ‘who should evaluate primate research’ here (Speaking of Research declined to post a blog response).

By way of overview, in her lengthy and scornful review of the roundtable session, Dr. Dettmer attempts to: 1) discredit the authenticity of the roundtable participants, 2) question the legitimacy of the information presented, and 3) deny that any part of the ensuing discussion was productive.

While I will comment on each of these points in turn, I must note that Dr. Dettmer’s extensive criticisms merely act to deflect attention from the tasks at hand, namely reevaluating ethical considerations of controversial non-human primate research, such as maternal deprivation studies, and bridging the existing divides between groups of primatologists, where welfare based dialogue has become largely too contentious to openly discuss. 

Additionally it is worth noting that, at no leading up to, during, or following the IPS/ASP roundtable session has Dr. Dettmer or any other ASP board member expressed an interest in gaining feedback from members on the research it endorses, such as controversial studies using maternal deprivation in non-human primates.

Dettmer criticism 1. “Despite its inclusion in the scientific program of scientific societies, the session presented little evidence and little balance.”

One of the strengths of primatology as a discipline is that it brings together researchers with vastly different interests and expertise. As such, IPS/ASP members may include evolutionists, geneticists, behaviorists, conservationists, and educators, to name a few. Given the breadth of primatological studies, differing methodologies may be employed, depending on the context and desired goals. Scientific or hypothesis-driven methods are integral to primatology; however, other methodologies or ways of knowing are used and equally valid, given appropriate circumstances. Philosophy, for example, is not a scientific discipline, yet the foundations for ethics and morality are found here.

My presentation, entitled Stewardship of non-human primates: can members drive progressive ethics (abstract 2392, available at, was not scientific in nature and did not present the results of hypothesis-driven research. My talk, provided background information on my involvement and interest in ethical considerations with reference to non-human primates, and also relayed some of my experiences while planning the roundtable discussion. These were both important as they set the stage for later discussion, but also addressed the divisive and even hostile climate within professional primatologists when openly discussing (or largely not discussing, given the hostility) the welfare and care of laboratory non-human primates. This hostility and divisiveness appears to largely stem colligate dialogue which could result in appreciably increased welfare for the primates in our care.

Other talks within the session did present scientifically derived information (abstracts 7454, 6852, 6909, and 6934, also available at For these, please do not confuse brevity of presentation (five-minute presentation format was chosen to maximize discussion time), or information collected via primary literature, with lack of evidence.

Note. From Dettmer criticism 1, it is not clear what “little balance” is referring to. I would happily comment on this if Dr. Dettmer cares to elaborate.
Dettmer criticism 2. The panelists were tied to organizations and/or campaigns opposed to laboratory research with nonhuman primates, yet did not disclose these ties upfront and failed to provide their basic starting assumptions or to acknowledge their positions.

First, I have no affiliations with organizations or campaigns opposed to laboratory research with non-human primates. However, if I did, I would hope that my word would be weighted with that of any other member, outside affiliations aside. As someone who is knowledgeable about non-human primates, I expect my authority to be based on my qualifications (doctoral and postdoctoral) and experience, not the affiliations that I hold.

Second, I fail to see why it is necessary for individuals to disclose institutional or organizational affiliations to which they are tied which may be apposed to laboratory research with non-human primates. Certainly, members who have ties to laboratories that conduct experimental research on non-human primates are not required to disclose affiliations or ‘acknowledge their positions’ during presentations. Moreover, disclosing any and all affiliative relationships is simply not standard procedure during IPS/ASP congresses.

Third, essentializing personal views on complex issues (i.e. being “for” or “against” laboratory experiments involving non-human primates) would at best be a false dichotomy, with respect to most peoples’ feelings on ethical research. Even if members could choose a simple ‘pro’ or ‘con’ stance, this would only likely act to further divide individuals. Furthermore, one could imagine a scenario wherein audience members, who would be otherwise open to logical arguments presented, become quickly biased upon hearing the “starting assumptions” or “positions”.

Rather than creating more divisions based on generalized bottom-lines (which are unlikely to exist in the same way for many people), we would be better served to acknowledge our commonalities and employ our primate empathetic and perspective-taking abilities, which are far more conducive to a creating a progressive dialogue on the ethical care of non-human laboratory primates.

Dettmer criticism 3. The fact-less rhetoric did not provide a basis for productive discussion about captive primate care or changes to existing regulations, as would have been provided with evidence-based presentations.

I disagree that the discussion was either fact-less or non-productive.

First, as outlined above, information needn’t be directly quantitative in order to be valid, or factual.

Second, several very important points emerged from the discussion, which will be integral to future discussions of captive non-human primate welfare and changes in existing regulations. To illustrate, a number of attendees noted feeling marginalized by the primatology community and suggested that the general atmosphere is hostile for discussing primate welfare. Interestingly, this sentiment likely applies to both to primatologists in support of and opposed to certain types of biomedical research with non-human primates (recognizing that this is a complex issue where few are likely completely in support of or against). Simply knowing this is powerful and could act as a starting point for bringing together primatologists, the vast majority of who wish to improve laboratory primate welfare.

Finally, I will comment specifically on the portion of Dr. Dettmer’s post regarding ‘who should evaluate primate research’? For ease of reading, I have included Dr. Dettmer’s text (in red italics) here, along with my responses.

The first speaker, LaFleur, wrote in the abstract of her presentation: “Ethical standards and cost-benefit analyses of non-human primates in research must continually be evaluated and reevaluated, by a diverse range of experts (including those without vested interests).” By “vested interests,” LaFleur presumably meant those working in primate research. What wasn’t clear is whether the panelists believe that they themselves and organizations such as PETA and HSUS also have clearly vested interests. For example, PETA has an extremely vested interests in this issue, yet nowhere during the session was it disclosed that panelist King has worked actively on campaigns organized by PETA (for other panelists’ ties to PETA; see below).

In this context, a “vested interest” refers to having a personal stake in maintaining the status quo of the current ethical standards that apply to laboratory use and care of non-human primates. Most obviously, anyone who is employed by a specific research project or laboratory has a vested interest in the research. Groups or individuals outside of those employed by non-human primate laboratories could also hold vested interests through their own employment, or by less obvious means, such as professional reputation. Despite these potential biases, those with vested interests may also be expertly qualified to contribute to progressing ethical standards. For these reasons, it is extremely important that ethical review panels have diversity and include at least some members who will not personally benefit from maintaining existing ethical norms.

Most important though, from the perspective of beginning with fact:  The analyses of non-human primates in research to which LaFleur refers already routinely occurs by experts in the field: the trained scientists, veterinarians, and colony managers, including many members of ASP, who work with primates in captive settings on a daily basis and dedicate much of their research programs toward understanding and improving their welfare (see, for one recent example, this special issue of the American Journal of Primatology, dedicated solely to the well-being of laboratory nonhuman primates).

Continual analyses of research programs, from a variety of experts occurs now must continue in future. My contribution to this is noting that experts without vested interests are also needed, and that ethical standards should be progressive rather than conservative.

LaFleur also wrote in her abstract, “I argue that experimental procedures which cause permanent and irreversible harm on individual non-human primates should not be deemed ethically permissible.” Yet, LaFleur failed to make a clear case for exactly why her position is justified in a way that is more appropriate than the position held by others who were part of the multi-level review that weighs scientific objectives and animal welfare and grants approval for research projects.

My position is no more or less valid than any of the individuals that were part of the multilevel review. However, what is important about my position is that I have little vested interest interest in maintaining the status quo of this research, as I do not personally gain via employment, publications, or social status, per se. Qualified persons outside of the institution, regulating board, and funding agency (who each have vested interests) provide a perspective that is currently lacking in the review process.

In sum, although Dr. Dettmer declined to participate as a panelist in the roundtable discussion*, her vast experience with captive primate research (including the maternal deprivation studies in question) could have provided valuable knowledge and insight into the ethical considerations that affect laboratory non-human primates. Rather than contribute to this important dialogue, Dr. Dettmer wrote an extensive blog post that aims to discredit my authenticity and legitimacy, along with that of my colleagues. Surely, this is not the most productive way to a progressive ethics, one that benefits the primates within our collective care as IPS/ASP members. I sincerely hope that Dr. Dettmer and many other non-human primate researchers, including the remainder of the board members of ASP, embrace a cooperative stance in future. A stance that is conducive to discussing and implementing progressive ethical standards, and one that truly puts first the welfare of non-human primates in laboratories. At present, this is simply not the case. 

Marni LaFleur, Ph.D. is the founder and co-director of Lemur Love, Inc. a US-based 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, an adjunct professor at the University of California San Diego, and a member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group. Responses here are mine alone and do not represent those of my co-organizer or fellow panelists, funders, or academic institutions.

* It is also worth noting that several laboratory-based primate researchers who were in attendance at IPS/ASP 2016 were invited to speak on the panel; all either refused to participate or failed to respond to invitations.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Lemur birth control, nesting boxes, and more rescues

Hi everyone!

I've now been back in Madagascar for a little over a week. I've spent most of that laying around sweating (jet-lagg, HEAT, fever, chest cold, diarrhea (like you wanted to know, right?)), but did also manage to get some work done... 

Here we are at the Lemur Conservation Center in Toliara. Chatting up all things lemur.
With the money from the Little Rock Zoo and the donations that many of you have made (THANK YOU), we've determined that the following are the most urgent needs of the lemurs at the Rescue Center:

1) Birth control! Its almost the ring-tailed lemur mating period, and given that we are full to the brim with lemurs (25 residents, 3 in waiting, many more to come), we need to make sure that we don't have a baby boom in the fall (though it would be cute!). Arranging lemur birth control injections, however, is not as easy as one may think. We use Depo-Provera (the same thing used by humans), but these must be administered FIVE times by an out-of-town cow veterinarian every 40 days, and they must start almost immediately.

Can't have these little jokers up the pole!

2) Sleeping boxes. We have an amazing and huge new 'aviary' being built which is almost ready to for our large group of lemurs, but before they can move in we need to have sleeping boxes made. These are important for sleeping (obviously), but also for creating shade (its hot as f*ck here), and giving hide-y spots.

Hard at work on the HUGE new lemur enclosure!

3) Transfer of new lemurs. Yep, we've got more waiting. These have already been seized and held at a government office here in Toliara. We have to pay all of the costs associated with the seizure and work through a tonne of bureaucracy before the animals will be released to us, BUT we're working on it and hope to get them as soon as possible.

And, believe me, the list goes on. For example, we need to hire another keeper for the existing lemurs, and have just heard of a young ring-tailed lemur with a bamboo lemur being kept illegally in a hotel in Fort Dauphin (a few hours' drive and an hour flight south of the Lemur Resce Center). And of course there is the research that we are here to do! That begins tomorrow as we are catching a glorified raft to traverse a portion of the Mozambique channel in a short few hours.

Not my most photogenic moment.
I was however, being scolded by Laurence,
the dominant female at the Lemur Rescue Center
and thought that was worth sharing.

Anyhow, I need to catch some zzzs...

As always, if you'd like to support our lemur rescue work please go to or to donate. We currently need funding for the second keeper, and to support our incoming lemurs.

Peace out, homies. I will have internet access again in a little under two months <3 p="">

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014 from my phone

Ah, good 'ole Blog LaFleur. Haven't see you in a while. I've been busy, and unmotivated, and now come to think of it, kinda depressed. 2014 was tough- general malaise, energy-less continent hopping, losing my dear sweet Kitty. But, there were good times too. And I've got the phone pics to prove it!

January. Fish and beer on Saturday(s). Kitty. Stripy octopus crochet.

February. Torrey Pines State Park. Kitty. Expensive gas!

March. Kitty. 37. Proboscis monkey in my purse-wait! That was April. Oh well. Santa Monica, view from the Fairmont. 

April, part 1. Calgary, Vienna, lettuce in my suitcase (Ron!). 

April, part 2. New shoes in Victoria, Kitty, sign in a
Vienna pub that says 'Sorry, no WIFI. Talk to
each other and get drunk'.

May. Vienna. Asparagus, cheese (mmm), coffee, someone else's little doggie,
and some lovely flowers. 

June. Statue with some powerful buns, my favorite Viennese
triangle carrot bread, Hotel Serena and neighboring slum (Madagascar)
and a lovely fruit salad at Le Gardin (M'car). 

July, part 1. Home coming, Lombard Street in SF, and malaria the toys. 

July, part 2. San Francisco China town, Rugged Point CA, Kittles,
escargot in Carmel-by-the-sea,
and a whole olallie berry pie from Cambria CA.  

August. Vietnam. Gary, keeping the sun off his face in DaNang,
Hanoi from my room, and a toilet that I have absolutely no recollection of,
 know why I took the photo, or where I was at the time. 

September. My very last picture of Kitty. Goodnight, sweet girl. And a getaway night at the Fairmont in Santa Monica. 

October. UCSD, James Franco an d Donkey join our fam. 

November. Grading exams (students like George Clooney, the lemur),
James Franco and Donkey getting friendlier, and an amoeba. 

December. Fish taco at Bull Taco, students protesting 'Black Lives Matter',
and the strange little house on the building at UCSD. 

And that is 2014 on my phone. Looking forward to 2015 and all that is has to offer.

Much love, peace and happiness to you and yours!


Sunday, June 29, 2014

Bed time for cave lemurs

Ring-tailed rock climbers. 
One of the groups of ring-tailed lemurs that I study at Tsimanampetsotsa National Park, Madagascar, sleeps in a series of small caves. Although the group returns to the very same caves every day, the whole ordeal takes a lot of political prowess, a decent grip, and about 40 minutes. This is because some spots in the cave are preferred (I don't know why), and higher ranked animals get first pick of everything from food and water to grooming rights and sleeping space. But that doesn't mean that lower ranked animals don't get ideas about those extra cozy spots where all the cool kids hang out.

Here's a little clip of females getting grumpy at each other over access to a water hole. They are of about the same rank, but still get irritated.

High ranked females get first choice and go into the caves one after the other without much problem. Mid-and low-ranked females follow but have to balance a) getting into the cave quickly and claiming a decent spot with b) getting chased/bitten or otherwise told off and ending up in a crappy cave. High- and mid-ranked males face the same dilemmas, but have to defer to all females before getting a spot. The super loser low-ranked males can forget about getting into a cave. They sleep all alone in sad little trees and probably get eaten by fossa without anyone noticing. Poor things. Babies/juveniles are cut a little slack and tend to sleep near or with their moms.

There is a little biting at the beginning of this clip, but mostly they all follow the cue and enter unscathed.

And last, for this video clip, keep your eye on the lemur in the middle who is negotiating getting into the cave while hanging on and still looking cool. Its probably not even funny, but totally cracks me up.

Oh how I miss my little rock climbing lemurs...

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Check out LJ. He's pretty great. Or at least he used to be.

One of the joys of studying the same wild animals repeatedly is that you get to know individuals and can follow their life events. "LJ" is one of my favorite ring-tailed lemurs from Tsimanampetsotsa and he has undergone some dramatic changes over the last few years. So, why don't I tell you about him? 

Here's LJ. All young and cute.

First, he's got a weird looking cap (the grey part of fur on his forehead) that reminds me of pulled back drapes.

LJ and his curtain cap.
This is in the wet season, when he was fat. 

But, I'd be lying if I told you that this was how I distinguish him from the other 10-15 males in his group. Because its not. "LJ" stands for 'Long John'. And that is what LJ has. A long john. Not so classy, I know, but seriously, I could point out LJ from halfway across the forest. With one eye. 

I know that you are curious.
Look, even the creepy lemur in the background is looking at LJ's lj. 

LJ used to be high ranking (for a male) and was quite popular with the ladies. But he also used to have a symmetrical face and an entire tail. 

LJ, pondering the meaning of the universe. Or something. 

But some where along the way LJ lost his hot-shot status, and maybe scrapped it out with other males one too many times. Now, he is the lowest ranked boy, has a totally jacked up grill, one ear that is barely hanging on, and is missing half his tail. I don't have a clue what happened to his face, but suspect that he had a dental abscess, lost a tooth or two, and now his canines are drifting in different directions. Which makes one canine look ridiculously big and the other one all but disappear. And he only has half of his tail. Lord only knows what happened there. 

LJ's huge tooth!

LJ. Big tooth vs. little tooth. 

You can see a little more of that huge tooth here:

And that's LJ. In all his glory. 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Meet Munchkin. Behold the Munchkin wave.

Ring-tailed lemurs use behavioral mechanisms to regulate their body temperatures. When its really hot in the afternoon, they hang out in the shade, hug onto cool rocks, and sometimes lick their hands. When its cold at night they huddle together in balls, and in the morning they warm up by "sunning". When sunning, they sit upright, stretch out, and get as much warmth as possible on their bellies, and arms and legs.

Lemur sunning. Its pretty great.

"Munchkin" is an eight month old ring-tailed lemur from one of the groups I study at Tsimanampetsotsa. Munchkin's sunning tactics totally crack me up, as he always seems to have his left hand sticking way out. I've dubbed his sunning style the 'Munchkin wave'. Check it out.

Holotype. The Munchkin wave. 
Paratype. The Munchkin wave. 

Thinking about the Munchkin wave.

Just a quick Munchkin wave before taking off.
Falling asleep Munchkin wave. 

A rare double-handed Munchkin wave. 

And finally, an E.T. style Munchkin wave. 
You're welcome.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Madagascar = 0, Marni = 1.

Madagascar barely tried to kill me. Like almost not at all. And really, I have nothing but good things to report. Imagine that. Two minor but notable incidences include my 1) nearly getting gored by a herd of rogue forest zebu (we, the zebu and I, had a misunderstanding as to my intentions and they decided to take a preemptive strike), and then my 2) getting a burning, blistering mystery insect bite that nearly drove me to chew off my own arm (and a good chunk of my torso). I tried everything short of human breast milk (a common cure for maladies around these parts, but unfortunately I didn’t have access to a lactating woman) to ease the excruciating itch and blazing hot burn, but 48 hours was all the metaphorical doctor ordered. Otherwise, all is/was good.

I am thrilled to report that the illegal human activities which were taking place within Tsimanampetsotsa National Park have dramatically decreased (see Conservation Sucks). Imagine that! I did collect quite a few “death balls” (horrible endemic fruits used to snare animals), but thankfully, no animals had been caught. And, get this, I saw 11 tortoises!! Previously, I stated that the critically endangered radiated and spider tortoises were likely locally extinct, but gosh darn it, I was wrong. Yet another pleasant surprise. There is still much work to be done in reforestation and forest protection; however some admirable strides have been made and my faith in humanity is moderately restored. Today.  

Destroying death balls. And looking odd.
OMG. Radiated tortoise on its tip-toes. 

I didn’t accomplish as much as I had hoped (but really, do we ever?) for a variety of reasons such as not having a car, not having any student assistants, and the fact that elementary school is out of session, but I got in lots of good quality lemur time and collected a remarkable number of lemur urine samples (36, FYI). I love these animals so very much and seeing how their lives change (or don’t) year after year is wonderful. Especially when neither of you are actively dying. 

The gang. 

Lemur fingers. Because I love them almost as much as lemur toes. 
More to come.