In Albuquerque, a macaque monkey is cradled in what seems an affectionate embrace and then swiftly placed in an airtight glass cage. A hose connected to the exhaust pipe of a 2004 Ford F-250 pick-up truck pumps exhaust into the cage where the monkey watches cartoons with toddler enthrallment.
The cage fills with smoke, and the monkey becomes distressed, whimpering while its tiny hands search for an opening at the seams of the cage and in the walls, streaking the condensation and film on the glass with its panicked motions. After three to four hours, the live monkey is removed from the cage, a tube is inserted down its throat, and its lungs are scraped for samples and blood tests are conducted.
These are rigged experiments to demonstrate the safety of diesel emissions. They have no scientific validity and are never published. The VWs are programmed to emit less nitrogen dioxide emissions than typically occur.
The VW diesel emissions are then compared with those of other makers’ vehicles, like the Ford pick-up. The studies are part of a six-year (2009-2015) corporate scam involving a fake research company called the European Research Group on Environment and Health created by VW, Daimler, and BMW to promote their diesel cars. We now know such VW diesel cars pollute 50 times more than advertised (6-7 times above the European standard) and are responsible for an estimated 100,000 deaths in Germany per year.
While shocking, such unethical behavior is nothing new. Corporate behavior that seeks to maximize profits outside ethical decision-making often involves fraud, environmental harm, and harm to humans and animals because it entails complete disregard for obligations to stakeholders other than shareholders.
The Exxon and BP oil spills involved all these harms. Animals such as the monkeys used in the VW experiment are the most vulnerable corporate subjects because they have limited legal protections.
Animal bodies are routinely used for profit with little or no legal protection. It is estimated over 100 million animals are used for animal research a year. Most of these animals are rodents, who are not covered by the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). Over nine billion animals are sold as flesh food. Only their slaughter and transportation are protected under federal law. Animals are also widely used for profit in exhibition, work, and entertainment, with AWA protection only when exhibited. State anti-cruelty statutes often contain exemptions for exhibited animals and animals used for food and fiber.
Animal cruelty is frequently proportional to profit. Animals are anally shocked to death, gassed, poisoned, or have their necks broken to avoid damaging their valuable coats. But perhaps the starkest example of for-profit cruelty is concentrated feeding operations (factory farms), where animals are viewed as commodities, rather than beings who suffer.
Animals annually are crammed into metal cages without the ability to move throughout their lives; housed in dark windowless sheds; denied veterinary care; and de-beaked, tail-docked, and castrated without anesthesia, all because it is cheaper than more humane alternatives.
The same efficiency calculations explain why larger animals have bolts forced through their brains, are shackled, and have their throats cut, and smaller animals like poultry are killed by electrocution and beheading after being shackled upside-down.
Federal regulations allow 140 birds to be processed per minute to save chicken farmers money, which results in missed chickens who are then boiled alive. In January, the USDA proposed lifting minimum process times altogether in pig slaughter, citing efficiency.
To be sure, primate research in the medical context is more closely regulated because of the high cognitive abilities of primates, our closest relatives who share approximately 98 percent of our DNA. The Nonhuman Rights Project is in fact fighting to have chimpanzees granted legal personhood, which, ironically, corporations enjoy.
But nothing in the AWA or state anti-cruelty statutes would have prohibited the gratuitously cruel VW experiment. The only reason we are learning about it now is because it was bad science that mislead customers, not because the monkeys were lured by cartoons to breathe dangerous exhaust fumes.
While it is easy to blame VW, we too are at fault. We must encourage lawmakers to enact more protective laws for animals and consumers to support companies that avoid cruelty to animals. Change is unlikely to occur unless corporations have different legal and financial incentives. The fact that VW became the world’s leading car maker after this scandal is on us.
Ani B. Satz, J.D., Ph.D. is a Professor at Emory University who teaches Animal Law and Business Ethics.