UCSF Monkey Business Draws McCartney's Ire
Researchers Marshall Fong and Stephen Cheung had intended to deafen several squirrel monkeys by subjecting them to ultra-high-intensity sound-pressure levels (SPLs). Last winter, Fong and Cheung contacted pro-sound specialist Radley Hirsch, owner of San Francisco Audio, seeking loudspeakers capable of extraordinary SPLs. Among other professional sound-reinforcement products, Hirsch sells Community Professional Loudspeakers, whose M-4 large-format horn seemed to fit the researchers' specifications.
"The M-4 puts out ungodly amounts of sound," said Hirsch. "It's capable of 145dB. Erickson Stadium in North Carolina uses them. Yankee Stadium has six." The M-4 is loud enough to be heard above the roar of speeding racecars at places like Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Hirsch was about to proceed with a demonstration, but cut his presentation short when he found out what the speakers were to be used for. "What they were going to do was surround the monkeys with four of the speakers and blast them for four hours," he recalled. The exposure---louder than jet engines at close range---would cause permanent high-frequency hearing loss in the monkeys. Hirsh refused to sell any equipment to UCSF, a decision that cost him an almost-$5000 sale.
"Community Loudspeakers was completely supportive of my decision," Hirsch stated in a phone interview July 31. Later, he found that four of the loudspeakers had been delivered to UCSF. "They had bought them from another dealer without saying what they would be used for," he explained.
UCSF Vice Chancellor for research Zack Hall, in response to a request by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to intercede in the experiment, explained that the monkeys would be anesthetized, and would wake up with "a hearing disability, similar to the one that millions of Americans have . . . the kind you get from going to rock concerts or being near airplanes." He said the research may "potentially benefit millions of people."
A professor of neurophysiology, Hall described the work as "fully approved by the University's committee on animal research" and "not experiments that we are in any way ashamed of." Later, the monkeys' brains would be surgically examined for changes as a result of the induced deafness.
Prolonged high-intensity sound causes permanent damage to "hair cells"---microscopic structures in the inner ear that convert hydraulic-pressure waves in the cochlea into nerve impulses. Because both the cause and the result of SPL-induced deafness are already well understood, the publicized justification for the experiment was called into question not only by PETA, but by In Defense of Animals, who staged two protests at UCSF.
McCartney, the former Beatle, longtime vegetarian, and animal-rights activist, was alerted to the situation by PETA. He leaped into the fray by appealing directly to the University's top administrator. "I must strongly object to these cruel tests. In a technologically sophisticated world and one in which we are supposed to be sufficiently aware of the needs of other species to respect them, there can be no excuse for inflicting such misery on these intelligent, feeling beings. That the monkeys may be anesthetized before they awake to find themselves bafflingly deaf is no consolation," McCartney wrote, in a letter reprinted in Leah Garchik's "Personals" feature in the July 23 San Francisco Chronicle.
After the first round of news stories appeared in the San Francisco Examiner, Hirsch fielded a flurry of calls "from all over," primarily from journalists. "Most of them were incredibly dismissive of PETA," Hirsch said. "They think it's an organization of crackpots and lunatics. It's actually a group of quite reasonable people. They've done all their research and know what they're talking about."
The experiments are continuing as planned at UCSF, according to the most recent reports. For his part, Radley Hirsch says he doesn't regret the lost sale or the ensuing controversy. Good karma, he believes, is worth more than money in the bank.