How Not to Save Lives

When the U.S. Army turns into Zombieland for monkeys, it makes sense that Woody Harrelson would take action. He couldn't supply the primates with sawed-off shotguns and souped-up SUVs, but this week he did speak out for them to the man in charge: new Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno.

I hope by now General Odierno has clicked on the link that Harrelson included in his letter to him. He would see what happens to vervet monkeys every single month at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland: in a crude simulation of a nerve agent attack, the monkeys are given a massive overdose of a drug called physostigmine. The small, dark-faced monkeys, who never made war on anybody, twitch uncontrollably, convulse, vomit and lose bowel control while medical trainees watch.

Aberdeen Proving Ground appears to be the only Army facility where watching a monkey twitch and vomit passes for medical training. Other military bases use sophisticated human patient simulators that can be programmed to mimic the human response to a nerve agent attack. These simulators, unlike vervet monkeys, can be placed in outdoor areas to recreate conditions in which such an attack might actually occur. The Navy trains medics for chemical, biological and radiological casualty preparedness using immersive hospital drills with manikins and scenarios with human actors.

Why are Army medics at Aberdeen being short-changed? Observing the twitching of a tail and the perspiration on the paws of monkeys is so irrelevant to humans that the Army might as well prepare medics for chemical warfare by screening Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Seizures, vomiting and diarrhea aren't difficult to recognize. The antidote is standard. What makes treatment difficult is the chaos and danger of an attack -- conditions that can be simulated in moulage drills with actors. Military medics deserve the best, most relevant training because our men and women in war zones deserve medics who got the best, most relevant training.

When I was in college, I paid my tuition and expenses by working in an emergency veterinary clinic. It's a far cry from Afghanistan, but I remember late nights when the critical cases rolled in one after the other. I remember the rising panic when everything needed to be done at once -- a catheter inserted into a Beagle's vein, oxygen given to a cat in shock, a surgery suite prepped for a Great Dane with internal bleeding. Running over a borzoi with my Volkswagen would not have prepared me for helping a veterinarian treat a dog who ran into traffic. I learned that on the job, just as the veterinarian did, without deliberately harming anyone. The training I needed was similar to what the Navy provides: the role-playing and drills, repeated again and again, until working under stressful, life-threatening conditions becomes second nature. That's how lives are saved.

Why the Army insists on poisoning monkeys is a mystery. It appears to violate Department of Defense regulations prohibiting weapons training on primates and the use of animals when alternatives are available. Army spokespeople claim that it's a vital part of chemical casualty training. But if it's so crucial, then why then is it optional? That's right -- watching a monkey suffer the terrible effects of a nerve agent attack isn't required. It's simply offered as an option, like butter flavor on your popcorn at the movies.

PETA often takes calls from men and women in the military who are forced to watch animals endure unspeakable things in medical training and are upset about it. Many of these young soldiers know they will soon be deployed. They know the risks that lie ahead. They know they may not see their loved ones for many, many months. The last thing they want to do is harm an animal who never posed a threat to anyone. But they are soldiers, so they can't object. As the parents, sisters, brothers, friends and relatives of these men and women, and as citizens who object to gratuitous cruelty, we can speak out as Woody Harrelson has just done. We can remind military leaders that in America, we must give our soldiers the very best and most modern training, and that in America, we don't harm the weakest among us simply because we're bigger and stronger.