You Won’t Believe What Volkswagen did to these Monkeys!

This Sunday evening, my husband and I sat down to watch a new documentary series on Netflix called “Dirty Money.” The first episode, “Hard NOx” follows documentarian Alex Gibney as he investigates Volkswagen’s emissions scandal. Gibney uncovers mountains of evidence that Volkswagen knowingly installed so-called “defeat devices” in their vehicles in order to fool regulators. But that’s not the whole story: in addition to polluting the environment and poisoning consumers, they also produced an ethically dubious Volkswagen monkey study that is causing outrage.

The Volkswagen Monkey Tests

Most of the story didn’t come as too much of a surprise for us, since my husband and I have been following the story for years. But there was one point in the documentary that shocked both of us: a re-enactment of a vehicle emissions test featuring macaque monkeys.

Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW wanted to prove to the United States that the “new” diesel engines were beyond reproach. And so, together with the European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector, also known as EUGT, they engaged the services of Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute – an Albuquerque group that had also done research  for the Environmental Protection Agency – to perform a study comparing emissions from a “clean diesel” red 2013 Volkswagen Beetle with a 2004 F-250 (there’s a discrepancy between NYTimes reporting and the “Dirty Money” documentary on this matter, with the New York Times reporting that it was a 1999 diesel pickup truck). The goal of the research was to discredit a 2012 study from the World Health Organization that led to diesel exhaust being labeled a carcinogen.

Volkswagen Decides on Monkeys

Initially, the Lovelace Institute planned to test the diesel exhaust on human cyclists. On reflection, they must have thought better of that idea. In the documentary, “Dirty Money” suggests the parallels with Hitler – an early Volkwagen supporter – might have been too much for the public to take. Thus, in 2014, they conducted the tests using 10 cynomolgus macaque monkeys.

The study was led by Dr. Jacob McDonald, who reported in his 2017 deposition that they had the monkeys watch cartoons while they inhaled poisonous fumes for hours. The episode contains a rather upsetting recreation of the experiment, which shows the macaques in distress. At this point, I must say I did stay till the end of the credits, and I can state that the “American Humane” logo does appear, with the statement that “no animals were harmed.” So while the monkeys look convincingly upset, let’s hope it’s just great acting.

As the lawyer interviewed for the documentary reveals, the monkeys were exposed to the fumes from the Ford F-250 for over four hours before being taken to a facility and given blood and other tests. Dr. McDonald reports in his 2017 deposition that it was a “non-terminal” study (the animals were not euthanized), as if that makes it better.

Built on a Lie

Of course, the truly vile things about this experiment is that Volkswagen was lying the entire time. The Volkswagen monkey study was a complete farce. The engines hadn’t changed, they were simply equipped with a “defeat device” that could fool the computers as long as the car stayed off the road. Meanwhile, the monkeys were being exposed to toxic levels of carcinogenic substances and made to endure lung biopsies and other intrusive treatments.

Anticipating backlash from consumers in response to these fraudulent tests, VW filed a motion to prevent stories of the Volkswagen monkey tests from every coming to light. Fortunately, thanks to Netflix, the whole world now knows what they did.

Thanks to the efforts of documentary filmmakers like Alex Gibney, these fraudulent and abusive tests on primates have come to light. And the public has demonstrated their concern.

Public Outrage

A quick google search just days after Netflix released “Hard NOx” demonstrated that dozens of news agencies had picked up on the story. While the public may understand the use of animal testing for life-saving purposes, they understandably have little patience for fraudulent studies that mistreat animals without cause. Absolutely nothing was gained from these studies, which likely caused irreparable health damage to the participants for the rest of their lives.

Volkswagen Apologizes for Monkey Debacle, Other Carmakers Deny Involvement

In response to the story, Volkswagen quickly attempted to apologize for their actions. In an announcement, they stated that “Volkswagen Group explicitly distances itself from all forms of animal cruelty. Animal testing contradicts our own ethical standards,” going on to apologize “for the misconduct and lack of judgment shown by individuals.” Of course, if you watch the documentary, it quickly becomes evident this was far from the actions of a few “individuals.” The Volkswagen monkey experiments were just one more sign of a corrupt and deeply flawed corporation.

Daimler and BMW were also quick to distance themselves. Reuters reports Daimler as saying it “does not tolerate or support unethical treatment of animals,” and that “the experiment was abhorrent and superfluous.” For its part, BMW claims to have in “no way influenced the design or methodology of studies carried out on behalf of the EUGT.” Moreover, BMW “does not carry out experiments involving animals and had no direct role in this study.”

But whose fault is it, then? Apparently, no-one. Volkswagen, BMW and Daimler have all claimed no responsibility for the Volkswagen monkey study, in spite of the fact it was commissioned on their behalf. And in late breaking news on Monday, it turns out that monkeys weren’t the only beings the EUGT studied. The Stuttgarter Zeitung reports that EUGT emissions studies were also carried out on 25 healthy adult humans.

Our Take

As the episode closed, my husband summarized his feelings on the topic in one sentence “we will never buy another car with an internal combustion engine.” That’s about the size of it.

Of course, there will always be problems that come with any technology. Batteries have challenges of their own. But better is better. And diesel – well…it’s a hell of a lot worse.


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