Posted on February 21, 2011


As a freelancer and a part-time student it would be very easy for me to morph into a couch potato. But I know only too well, that an expanding waistline is unlikely to bring more on-screen work, just additional woes about health issues and lots of ribbing from friends and family. So, three times a week, I cart myself off to the gym to justify eating man-sized meal portions and quaffing a bottle of wine most days .

I recently read about a young male living in the States called Shiva. Unlike me, he’s had little control over what he’s become. He spends all day on his own, lazing around, eating rich, fatty foods and slurping carbonated drinks. He’s twice the size that he should be for his age and his rotund belly hangs well below his waistline.

Shiva is a monkey. He’s one of 4,000 Rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta)being studied by scientists at Oregon National Primate Center. He’s been fattened up to help study the twin human epidemics of obesity and diabetes. There are about  150 monkeys that are overweight – some receive daily insulin shots to treat diabetes; others have clogged arteries. And sadly one monkey died of a heart attack a few years ago at a fairly young age.

Fat Albert, one of the world's heaviest Rhesus monkeys at 70lbs

I’m all for scientific research to help tackle these human ailments, but this kind of research does leave me sitting on the fence. My heart very much goes out to the primates who are forced to live unpleasant lives at our expense. This picture of Fat Albert is quite disturbing and I’d be surprised if it didn’t have an impact on each and every one of you looking at it.

Experts say, they use monkeys because they resemble humans much more than laboratory rats do, not only physiologically but in some of their feeding habits. They tend to eat when bored, even when they’re not really hungry. And unlike people who always try to pretend their daily calorie intake was less than it was, a caged monkey’s food is much easier for researchers to count and control.

Dr Kevin L. Grove, who  is a neuroscientist and directs the obese resource centre in Oregon says: “The monkey’s daily diet consists of dried chow pellets, with about one-third of the calories come from fat, similar to a typical American diet, though the diet also contains adequate protein and nutrients.”

The research has produced some positive results. An anti-appetite drug was tested which allowed the monkeys to lose 13 percent of their body weight in a few weeks with no apparent heart problems. Others have been tested with gastric bypass surgery and forced dieting.

Animal rights groups have been tirelessly campaigning against this type of research. They say primate studies subject animals to needless suffering, like the stress of being caged. Two activists got jobs at this particular centre in the last decade and presented evidence of what they said were mistreated and unhealthy monkeys.

Shiva at the Oregon National Primate Center, he's twice his normal body weight

Jim Newman, a spokesman for the primate centre said the accusations were “unfounded” and that after both instances, inspectors from the Department of Agriculture found “no violations of rules”.

Monkey studies can cost up to several million pounds. The animals are so precious that only a small number can be used. But there are ethical reviews before a study can begin. It does make you think twice though, those breakthrough cures, have come at a quite a moral price tag.

If more people exercised and ate sensibly maybe monkeys like Fat Albert and Shiva wouldn’t have to be our genuine pigs.