Experiments to Heal Parkinson’s and Dementia
How Tübingen-based neuroscientist Nikos Logothetis, once considered a contender for the Nobel Prize, became a target for radical animal rights activists.
As Nikos Logothetis sat down in front of the television the evening of September 10, 2014 and switched on the RTL network, he had a sense of what he was about to see. The television news magazine Stern TV had produced a report on animal testing. Animal testing that he, Logothetis, a world-renowned neuroscientist, was performing himself.
What he failed to sense was that, in the weeks and months to follow, he would receive death threats, have criminal charges brought against him, and develop heart problems. He failed to sense that he, whose name was currently being discussed for the Nobel Prize, would be forced to give up his research, his monkeys, his lifework.
It was a mild late summer evening, and Logothetis, 67, was at home, a tranquil spot on a hillside in Tübingen. The city glittered at his feet, and for the moment, things were quiet as usual. Then the program began on RTL.
The images were familiar to Logothetis, yet very foreign. They had been recorded in the building next door, not fifty meters from where he now sat. In that building—the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, of which he is the director—Logothetis conducts foundational research. He examines how structures in the brain communicate with one another. The journal Nature once dubbed him the “maestro of minds.”
A man in a hooded sweatshirt appeared on screen, his face averted. Logothetis immediately recognized the voice of his former employee, a caretaker named P., who had tended to the laboratory animals over the past year—42 macaques. In the report, however, P. was not introduced as an animal caretaker, but as an animal rights activist who had worked undercover at the Institute for Biological Cybernetics for six months, during which time he had captured secret footage for the animal rights organization Soko Tierschutz.
The recordings, accompanied by haunting sounds, are unsettling. A monkey sits in a desolate cage, its head shorn. An implant has just been placed in its head. The incision is still fresh, and reddish wound drainage pours over the animal’s face. In another sequence, two scientists are pictured bent over a dead monkey laid on an operating table, cutting open its body. Afterward, the carcass is placed in a blue plastic bag. The report closes with the female monkey Stella, seen stumbling clumsily around her cage, one side of her body crippled. She vomits white slime. P., the animal rights activist, explains in a voice-over that one “final experiment” was planned for Stella, and then she would be killed. The camera focuses on Stella’s face, and the viewer sees her open mouth and brown, wide-eyed gaze.
As Nikos Logothetis turned off the television, he was furious, but not yet frightened. Yes, the images were from his institute, but in his opinion, they had been edited with malicious intent. No one could possibly believe that the footage represented everyday goings-on in his laboratory, Logothetis thought. He fell into a sound sleep, convinced that things would be resolved without much fuss.
He was wrong.
“Tortured Animals! Max Planck Institute criticized for testing on monkeys” (Bild, 9/11/2014)
“Sirens Sound Against Animal Testing: Around 1,000 people protested in central Tübingen Saturday afternoon against experimentation on monkeys at Max Planck Institute” (Schwäbisches Tagblatt, 9/21/2014)
“Conflict Surrounding Animal Testing at Max Planck Institute Escalates: Will world-renowned institute director leave?” (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 1/15/2015)
“Max Planck Institute Searched” (die tageszeitung, 1/30/2015)
“Finally! Monkeys in Tübingen no longer need to suffer. Following ongoing criticism from animal rights organizations, the Max Planck Institute has stopped testing on monkeys.” (Bild, 4/19/2017)
“Criminal Charges Brought Against Nikos Logothetis for Animal Abuse.” (Deutsche Welle, 2/20/2018)
In the 1,308 days that have passed since Nikos Logothetis fell into that sound sleep, he has been caught in a nightmare from which he has not yet woken. He sits in his office one sunny April day, a sturdy man with thick hair and a dark beard. He’s worked up, doesn’t know where to begin. “I don’t understand any of this,” he says.
It’s all pretty obvious, though. To the public, Logothetis is a wretched animal abuser who tortured defenseless monkeys for dubious research purposes. The public prosecutor investigated him. And as punishment, the Max Planck Society, where he works, prohibited him indefinitely from performing or guiding any further tests on animals.
Case closed? Not quite. To hear those familiar with Logothetis’s research tell it, an altogether different picture emerges.
Renowned researcher Kuno Kirschfeld, a longtime evaluator in the Ethics Commission for Animal Testing, which monitored Logothetis’s work, says, “Nikos never did anything wrong. He always met the highest standards in his work.”
Tübingen mayor Boris Palmer states, “I came to know Logothetis and his team as brilliant researchers operating at the most advanced levels of science.” Even P., the animal rights activist who infiltrated the lab and unleashed this scandal, now admits, “I never saw Logothetis as a person who willfully caused animals pain.”
How to explain this?
Logothetis bounces fitfully in his chair—he appears undecided as to whether he should talk or not. “You might go and write that I’m an asshole,” he growls in a Greek accent. He leans back, then forward, hesitates, and says, “I’m sorry! These last few years have been a lot.”
In the days following the first broadcast—Stern TV would release further programs on the topic in coming months—people sent him emails calling him “the modern-day Josef Mengele,” threatening to kill him, and advising him to “wear a helmet when [he left] the building. Our iron rods are very painful.” When Logothetis went to the hairdresser’s, he was turned away: “We don’t cut criminals’ hair.”
He knows how emotional people can get. He’s Greek. In Germany, though, he had assumed that reason would always prevail in debate. He wasn’t yet aware of Germans’ relationship with animals.
Sometimes the country engages in absurd debates, such as the recent case of Chico, an attack dog that made headlines after it mauled its two owners, then gained hundreds of thousands of supporters who hoped to save it from impending death. Sometimes the debates are critical, even receiving coverage in ZEIT, such as the discussion surrounding abject conditions in some feedlots and slaughterhouses. Few animal-related topics, however, inspire as emotional a response in people as testing on monkeys. Surely these animals are far too similar and closely related to us, for us to mess around with them. Surely that’s immoral?
The image of a monkey with wires stuck in its head, eyes wide in its humanlike face, is quick to weaponize, the impact powerful enough to end arguments—and sometimes even people.
Nikos Logothetis steps out of his office to provide a tour through the ruins of his laboratory. He strides down the corridor, past rooms that look as if they were looted overnight. Cords hang from the walls, a few tables stand askew, screens gather dust. Otherwise: emptiness. This is where the tests were performed on monkeys. These rooms used to sparkle with the very latest technologies; they were the envy of neuroscientists the world over, who visited regularly to view the space. Stanford professor William Newsome called the laboratory, “the Taj Mahal of primate research.” It has lain fallow for a year.
Logothetis opens a sliding door at the end of one hallway, revealing a fully functional operating theater, proud and deserted. A small operating table stands in the middle of the room, above it an operating light; there is a patient transfer unit, vital signs monitor, surgical microscope, and an array of infusion pumps and sterile surgical instruments. One could easily perform surgery on a child here. Logothetis operated on his monkeys on that table. With the animal under general anesthetic, he positioned implants and recording chambers in its head, in order to advance microelectrodes into the brain. Then the experiments began.
When asked to justify the need for such testing, Logothetis beams, thankful for the opportunity to explain himself. His tension vanishes. He begins describing functionally specific neural networks, action potentials and local field potentials, inhibitory and excitatory synapses. Overcome with fascination, he heads off to the depths of the brain—or rather, speeds off and forgets to look back along the way and extend a helping hand to an outsider. Someone like him is an easy opponent for animal rights activists, who counter such lectures by holding up a photograph of a macaque with electrodes coming out of its brain.
Francis Crick, who earned legendary status after discovering DNA, once said, of Logothetis, “Nikos is an extremely intelligent person, versatile, exceedingly diligent, very thorough, and he understands exactly what he’s doing.” Describing what he’s doing to others, though, presents more of a challenge to Logothetis, which might even explain why this whole affair reached the magnitude it did.
At times, his intellectual superiority can manifest as social inferiority. This was already evident in the sixties, when Nikos, a child prodigy, was growing up in Istanbul. His family belonged to the Greek minority living in Turkey. He aced every class in school. At age eleven, while the other boys played soccer, he read books on physics. At age twelve, the books were on chemistry, and when he was thirteen, he produced nitroglycerine. He played accordion on the side, and later piano. When he heard a song, he could play it immediately and without sheet music. He speaks six languages.
In 1966, he moved to Athens and studied music at the conservatory. He founded the rock group Peloma with friends in 1970. First album, first fans, first accomplishments. Opening act for the Rolling Stones. Rising stars in Greece.
But then Logothetis quit. Music was nice and all, but mathematics—that, he could tell, was a passion. He studied math, then biology. To finance his studies, nights were spent tickling the ivories in bars and hotels. During the daytime, he became more closely acquainted with the beauty and complexity of the brain. “The brain accounts for a mere two percent of our body weight,” Logothetis says, “but consumes 20 percent of our total oxygen. That means it is incredibly active at all times. Why? That’s what I wanted to understand.”
He relocated to Munich and completed his doctorate in neurosciences in almost no time. MIT—the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology—discovered him in 1985 and summoned him to Cambridge. A few years later, he moved to Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. He began working with monkeys while in the US. Like humans, monkeys are primates, meaning they belong to the most highly developed group of mammals and have a neuroanatomy similar to ours. This is what makes them so interesting to neuroscientists. In 1996, Logothetis began his research in Tübingen.
“Have a look at this,” Logothetis says, back in his office. He pulls out some grainy, black-and-white photos of macaques looking dolefully at the camera, tremendous bulges on their heads. “In the eighties, implants were inserted into the animals’ skulls without much consideration,” he explains. His colleagues were neither terribly versed nor interested in medical practices and would drill into the monkeys’ heads however they pleased, which regularly led to infection or hemorrhaging in the animals.
Logothetis was one of the first researchers to demand that human standards of care be implemented in surgical procedures on primates. He inquired at a nearby hospital whether he might be allowed to observe operations performed on humans. From then on, he spent his free time watching surgeons cut open skulls. Logothetis learned how to apply the scalpel to promote minimal bleeding, and he studied the standards of hygiene that must be upheld.
The foundational research he performed on monkeys was considered seminal. Around the turn of the millennium, he was invited to direct the US-based McGovern Institute for Brain Research, funded at the time by a $350 million donation from a tech billionaire. But Logothetis stayed in Tübingen. At the time, an institution as dedicated to research as the Max Planck Society couldn’t be found, he says.
In the academic journal Science, he published a groundbreaking article that described how sensory impressions contribute to forming consciousness. His paper on a method that enables the more precise observation of brain activity, published in 2001 in the journal Nature, became one of the most-cited studies in biology that year.
Animal rights activists like P. argue that foundational research like this serves nothing more than to satisfy scientists’ curiosity. Sensory impressions and consciousness? So what? Observation of brain activity? What’s the point of that?
Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard stands by the window in her office, which overlooks the Institute for Biological Cybernetics, where Logothetis performed his experiments. In recent years, when she looked over, she often observed police officers cordoning off the area and security personnel shielding Logothetis and his staff from animal rights activists prepared to use violence. Nüsslein-Volhard—75, blouse, necklace, white curls—is a professor emeritus at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology and one of today’s best-known scientists, a position she has occupied at the very latest since 1995, when she became the first German woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
She received the prize for the discoveries she made regarding genetic control in the early embryonic development of Drosophila, or fruit flies. She never experimented on mice, rats, or monkeys. “I’m too sensitive when it comes to that,” she says. Nevertheless, she finds people are often too quick to project their notions of happiness and suffering onto animals. For example, a lion at the zoo does just fine, as long as it’s provided food and species-appropriate living conditions. For tigers, meanwhile, the zoo is hell on earth, because they have too great a need for movement.
The monkey facilities Nikos Logothetis oversaw, Nüsslein-Volhard asserts, were impeccable. “At least as good as the best zoos.” For that reason, many veterinarians were stunned to learn that he, of all people, was being attacked. “He’s the one who created the standards for research monkeys’ well-being in the first place,” she says. She’s not convinced that he should be considered some culprit now. If anything, he’s a saint to many.
“His research combines a variety of methods—which sets it apart—to represent perception of optical stimuli in different brain centers with the greatest possible precision. It promised to process topographically the foundations of the brain in a way no one else on earth can,” Nüsslein-Volhard says. This detailed imaging now allows us to determine with greater accuracy, which connections exist in which areas of the brain. That then helps us better understand how conditions like depression or dementia develop. Had he been allowed to see his research through to the end, Nüsslein-Volhard believes, “he would probably have been a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.”
There are more than 500 known neurological and psychiatric disorders. A complete and permanent cure does not exist for a single one. The only hope: foundational research like that performed on monkeys in Logothetis’s labs. Research that scientists used to develop “brain pacemakers” to help mitigate symptoms in patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease, obesity, and schizophrenia. And in those battling with depression.
Last year, Stern TV aired a profile of a clinically depressed man who had one of these pacemakers implanted in his brain. Before the procedure, the man recalls, he tried every imaginable form of therapy, but nothing helped, and he was contemplating suicide. Then the doctors implanted the brain pacemaker. The device stimulates the diseased neurons with electrical impulses, which can lead to antidepressant effects. The man in the report says he’s doing better now, that things are “just wonderful,” and that he is “very, very grateful it all worked out this way.” The fact that deep brain stimulation emerged from tests performed on monkeys was not mentioned in the program.
Researchers at Logothetis’s institute were trying to develop this technology further. About 40 percent of patients experience side effects such as heart problems or neural disturbance, because scientists are not yet certain what exactly happens when electricity flows through brain tissue. One of Logothetis’s teams was working on a method to reduce these risks.
“We should face facts,” Nüsslein-Volhard says in her office. “Nearly all medical advances from the last two hundred years are based on animal testing.” Without this testing, treatments for AIDS, cancer, or malaria wouldn’t exist, nor would vaccines against tetanus, SARS, or infantile paralysis, nor would vaccines against polio, diphtheria, and hepatitis, nor would antibiotics, heart medications, anesthetics, insulin injections, blood transfusions, or organ transplants.
And yet, the question hovers over every active ingredient administered to mice and every curative treatment tested on macaques: is this allowed—to test things on animals that might one day help humans? Especially on animals as closely related to humans as monkeys?
There are philosophers who say yes, it is allowed, because there is no higher form of existence than ours, which expresses itself through art, music, and literature and has built institutions dedicated to education, economy, and politics. Humans—the only creatures aware of their own inevitable death—have an obligation, instead, to do what they can to help members of their own species, such as family members, friends, and other fellow humans. For the benefit of humanity, it is therefore justified to experiment on animals, even monkeys.
Then there’s Peter Singer. The Australian philosopher and—since his 1975 publication Animal Liberation—shining light of the animal rights movement, contends that if thousands of human lives stand to be saved by the testing, researchers may inflict suffering on a handful of animals, but only if they were prepared, at least theoretically, “to perform their experiments on orphaned humans with severe and irreversible brain damage.” Singer writes that monkeys, and even mice or rats, are more sensitive to pain than badly brain-damaged humans.
At first that sounds barbaric. Then it makes sense. But ultimately, one has to wonder: don’t most humans feel more empathy for another human, even a stranger, than for a monkey? How would people approach hospitalization in a world where experiments on brain-damaged patients were allowed? Wouldn’t they develop unfathomable fear and distrust?
“Here it is!” Logothetis calls and taps his forefinger on the monitor. He’s at his computer, looking through a PowerPoint presentation he prepared for a lecture. One slide displays monstrous figures regarding rates of animal death and slaughter in Germany. Logothetis aims to underscore the relativity.
Every year, more than 700 million head of poultry and nearly 60 million pigs are killed in German slaughterhouses. Around four million animals succumb to the hunter’s rifle, and about 230,000 die in traffic. “Do you know how many monkeys were used for foundational research in 2016?” Logothetis asks, his tone long since acerbic. He answers his own question: “192.” And they were macaques, crab-eating macaques, or tamarins—in other words, not great apes, such as chimpanzees or gorillas, which can walk upright and laugh and have not been used for experimentation in Germany since 1991.
Whenever Logothetis wanted to start a new experiment with his monkeys, he had to write a project proposal around 80 pages long. He had to verify the skills and experience the participating scientists demonstrated. He had to outline how and when the monkeys’ health was checked, who oversaw this process, and what the animals’ living conditions were. He had to describe the cages, equipment, and hygiene management, and prove that the anticipated findings could only be gained by means of animal testing.
The proposal was then submitted to the designated regional authority in Tübingen, where the experiment’s utility and necessity were discussed by an ethics commission comprising veterinarians, doctors, researchers, and animal rights advocates. Over the course of any experiment, an animal welfare officer would monitor for compliance with regulatory directives, and a government veterinarian would occasionally show up for unannounced inspections.
One can no longer observe these experiments in Logothetis’s institute. The macaque cages are empty. Logothetis gave up his research with monkeys after suffering sudden deafness and requiring treatment for heart problems during the months of demonstrations and attacks against him following the original broadcast. The public demanded the testing be halted promptly. Many of his monkeys underwent final tests, and most were then killed, as planned when certain series of experiments have concluded. The institute ended experimentation on primates in April of 2017.
There are, however, still a few facilities in Germany, hidden and highly secured, where researchers continue to experiment on monkeys.
Even on the phone, the man had murmured that there wouldn’t be any signage, no name above the doorbell, pretty obvious why that was. But a visit would be fine. You had to drive north, toward Bremen, until you came upon an inconspicuous structure surrounded by a steel fence and under video surveillance, cowering in the shadows of a fancy building. Nearly 700 kilometers away from Logothetis, another neuroscientist opens the door, slim, tall, and cheerful. “Let’s head right over to the experimentation labs,” Andreas Kreiter says.
Kreiter, 55, is a professor of animal physiology and heads the Department of Theoretical Neurobiology at the University of Bremen. He works with monkeys, as Logothetis used to, and is also well acquainted with all manner of animosity. When he came to Bremen in 1997, animal rights activists hung posters around the city that read, “The university has hired monkey torturer Andreas Kreiter. If you object to this move, just give him a call or pay him a visit.” His home address and telephone number were printed below. One time, an enraged mob tried storming the office in which he had taken refuge, and another time, his wife received a letter disguised as junk mail, in which activists threatened to kidnap their three-year-old son and perform experiments on him. Kreiter had police protection for years.
Quiet, please. He enters a room, and inside are measuring devices, computer screens, and a coworker. Kreiter points to the image of a macaque on a monitor, then he turns to a door beside the instruments. That, he whispers, is where the animal is performing tasks.
The monkey, visible on the monitor, is sitting on a primate chair: a Plexiglas box with a hole in the top, where the animal’s head pokes out. It can move its arms freely. Coming out of its head is an implant with a bolted joint, which connects the monkey to a metal contraption hanging from the ceiling. The electrodes in its head allow the researchers to cull signals from individual neurons. “He doesn’t notice a thing,” Kreiter says. As in humans, a monkey’s brain has no pain receptors.
The monkey’s task consists of recognizing repeated shapes. Every time it does this successfully, it’s rewarded with a sip of water from a hose positioned in its mouth. Opponents argue that this only worked because the animals were denied water for days in advance. Otherwise they wouldn’t cooperate. And that was torture. Kreiter counters, “In the wild, macaques will often walk for eight days from one water hole to the next, without drinking anything. If our monkeys were truly suffering, they would be stressed, and you can’t work with stressed animals.”
The monkey solves its puzzles for twenty minutes, then stops abruptly. Looks around. Scratches itself. Then its eyes close. The other scientist leans back in his chair. “That’s normal,” he says. “Catnap.” Kreiter adds, “If he were scared, he wouldn’t just fall asleep.”
Kreiter says goodbye to his colleague and strolls into the lab in the next room, where other monkeys are busy with similar exercises. He chats with the researchers there and explains that what they were doing here was foundational research in its final stages. He’s optimistic that the technology developed with these monkeys could soon be implemented in paralyzed patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) to help them communicate again; electrodes implanted in their brains would allow them to select letters displayed on a monitor and form words and sentences.
There is much scientists can now research without using animals. They’re creating cells from human or animal tissue in the lab and analyzing the cells’ behavior. They’re cultivating human skin in petri dishes and testing chemicals on it. In Germany today, tobacco products, weapons, and cosmetics may only be tested on cell cultures. Critics of experimentation argue that, even in brain research, alternatives such as computer simulations could be used.
On that note, Kreiter says he once visited the IT specialists next door and made this very suggestion. They had laughed themselves silly: a model of the entire brain? How can we simulate something when no one knows how it really works? If that were possible, Kreiter reasons, everyone would immediately switch over to computer models, if only for the cost savings. “But it isn’t possible.”
Once the monkeys finish their tasks, caretakers bring them back to their cages. Visitors are not allowed in, as there is too great a risk of introducing viruses. Images show stalls, in which 18 animals live in small groups; they have trees for climbing, ropes, hammocks, and a flat-screen TV. Macaques love watching television, Kreiter explains. Morning programming was especially popular, because animal shows were often broadcast. “But you wouldn’t believe the screaming when a lion shows up on screen.”
These animals have never known the wild. Research monkeys are bred in captivity. They wouldn’t survive in the jungle or savanna. Macaques can be nasty peers. Their territorial fights are brutal—a monkey might tear out the tongue of its opponent or bite its finger off. The individual groups are typically separated by Plexiglas dividers in the stalls. That way, they can still interact, but cannot attack.
It bothers Kreiter that public discussions surrounding animal testing ignore one critical aspect. “I’ll use an example to explain.” If someone is caught driving past a car wreck without stopping to help, they would rightly be charged for failing to render assistance. “If opponents of animal testing hinder a research project for four years,” Kreiter says, “they are potentially slowing four years’ worth of research into a medical technique that could have saved hundreds of human lives.” Kreiter believes that, without the disruption to their work, Logothetis and his lab would have made game-changing discoveries and helped many people in the meantime.
As the affair ran its course, Nikos Logothetis pushed for charges to be filed against P., the animal rights activist who had infiltrated the lab. Logothetis argued that this man had made his way into the institute under false pretenses, made secret recordings, and stolen internal documents. The Max Planck Society, however, would hear none of it, he says. “They wanted to keep things down.”
Logothetis first saw the man who would later precipitate his downfall one day in August of 2013. It was P.’s first day of work. Logothetis welcomed the new staff member and returned to his office, while P. began his undercover mission.
P. has not spoken about that six-month period in a long time. It was an intense time, and stressful too, P. says. He suggested meeting at a bar near the train station in Augsburg, because his apartment is outside of town. P., 33, orders a coffee without milk or sugar. His beverages are vegan, his food is vegan, his clothes—a black t-shirt and black pants today —are vegan.
He had come across the job in the classified ads—Hiring Animal Caretaker for Laboratory. It fit, because he had experience. “I used to help out in a small veterinary clinic,” P. explains. A few years ago, he and some acquaintances founded the Soko Tierschutz animal rights organization, he says. “Our main objective was to inform people of the way animals are treated.” The group, which today has over 50,000 likes on Facebook, revealed that cattle at a slaughter facility in Düren, which also supplies McDonald’s with meat, were so poorly sedated that the animals had to be shot repeatedly in the head before they finally died. Just recently, they documented the cows’ suffering on a farm in Saxony-Anhalt: living animals stand amid rotting carcasses, and in one clip, a weakened cow gets caught by an automated manure scraper as it passes. The recordings of the research monkeys, however, were probably the activists’ greatest coup.
He moved to Tübingen for that very purpose, P. says. It was the first undercover research he ever did. A few weeks in, he felt ready to start recording the monkeys’ everyday life with a camera hidden in his shirt. What he saw seemed to him like animal torture. The experiments, being denied water, the primate chairs. “The approach was to try and reward the animals for doing things correctly, like training a dog,” P. says. In his opinion, this had to be interpreted as a form of compulsion.
He doesn’t seem like a radical animal rights activist, what with the reserved nature and soft voice. You had to be honest, P. thinks. Of course they ultimately chose the worst sequences, but nothing was manipulated. He never saw the head of the institute as someone who went out of his way to cause the animals pain. “I even think that the people doing this research believe they’re doing good,” P. says. “They think they’re helping humanity with their work.” He disagrees. “The problem with foundational research is that it doesn’t have any practical benefits at first.”
Then what about experimentation on animals that does have an immediate application, like the treatment for Ebola first tested on monkeys, that then helped combat the epidemic in Africa a few years ago—is that allowed?
“What I then want to know is whether it couldn’t have been developed using other methods.”
“Not very quickly.”
“I don’t know. Definitely a tricky ethical topic. I would need more information.” In any case, animals couldn’t be allowed to suffer.
But the beleaguered scientists could?
P. shrugs his shoulders. “I find it hard to blame us, as an animal rights organization, for that.”
P. has since left the Soko Tierschutz group. He does not want to discuss the reasons. He now works for PETA, the largest animal rights organization in the world, supported by more than six and a half million people and known for its campaigns. One was called “Holocaust On Your Plate” and juxtaposed two images—emaciated concentration camp prisoners on one side, chickens and pigs in factory farms on the other.
Animal rights advocates have likely never had a greater influence on society than they do today. Pictures of monkeys whose skulls have been drilled into and mice whose bodies are riddled with tumors are posted, shared, and appear unexpectedly and without any context in Facebook timelines, for millions of people to experience the animals’ suffering. The outrage these millions express generates pressure that few manage to withstand. Activists put sustained pressure on representatives in the legislative assembly in Bremen until the parliament unanimously decided to put a stop to Andreas Kreiter’s experimentation on monkeys. The fact that many of the politicians had initially supported the research: forgotten. Kreiter was only allowed to continue his work because he sued, and the Federal Administrative Court ruled in his favor in 2014. The court concluded that the strain put on the animals was “ethically defensible, with regard to the considerable scientific significance of the proposed experimentation.”
Seven months after the ruling, the images of the research monkeys in Tübingen found their way into the world. The Soko Tierschutz group had provided Stern TV with P.’s footage, which totaled around 100 hours’ worth. Logothetis would rather the activists had shown all of the tape. Then viewers would have seen the monkeys’ everyday life, he argues, “the reality”: the animals at play or sleeping.
Those recordings were not released. The production company states that they, Stern TV, reviewed all of the material and selected scenes based on their relevance to the overall report. Logothetis did not accept an offer to rebut the accusations.
P. was never sued. Instead, a number of animal rights organizations brought charges against Logothetis and his institute for violating the German Animal Welfare Act. The public prosecutor executed a search warrant.
The Max Planck Society voiced support for the researchers, while simultaneously promising to improve their primate facilities. To Logothetis, this sounded like an admission of guilt. “The Max Planck Society wanted to sweep the whole thing under the rug,” Logothetis says. He rejected the proposed improvement measures and instead suggested they acquire more monkeys: to set an example. Move into position.
It is easy to imagine that the professor, uncontested in his research and an emotional man, was no easy partner for the Max Planck Society during this difficult period.
One day in April of 2015, Logothetis sat down at his desk in frustration and wrote an email to his colleagues. In it, he announced that he would be terminating his research on monkeys. It prompted an outcry, and nearly 5,000 scientists from around the world expressed solidarity with him.
It was no use. The judiciary was digging into the case, witnesses were being examined, records scoured. The investigations wore on. Then Logothetis received an email from Martin Stratmann, the president of the Max Planck Society.
Should criminal charges be filed, he wanted to let Logothetis know his options in advance: “Acceptance of the charges implies an admission of your guilt (. . .). Consequently, the governing board of the Max Planck Society would have to decide whether to partially revoke your leadership role, for instance, as it applies to personnel involved in animal testing.”
Even if the charges were appealed, “in order to avert any damage to all of us, the governing board would have to consider suspending your leadership role until the court has made its final decision, and possibly halting all animal experiments for which you are responsible.” He, Stratmann, would strongly suggest that he, Logothetis, resign from his leadership role voluntarily and discontinue all of his own experiments. “Beside the options outlined above, you are also free to consider leaving the Max Planck Society at any time.”
In response to a request for comment, the Max Planck Society maintains that its president’s suggestion was “appropriate” and served the purpose of “deflecting possible damage to all involved parties and working together on a solution to the situation.”
Logothetis was surprised: just a few years back, Stratmann’s predecessor had offered to extend his contract past retirement age, because he was so pleased with his work. Now the new president was dropping him because he was afraid of a few activists? And besides, didn’t the presumption of innocence apply to all people?
Four months after the email from the president of the Max Planck Society, the Tübingen public prosecutor concluded investigations into Logothetis. There was not much more investigators had found on him. For instance, the monkey that had horrified viewers, after it was shown on television with a shaved head: everything was fine. The animal had undergone surgery, hence the shorn fur. The discharge streaming so wretchedly down its face: it would look no different for a human patient after an operation of that nature. The only difference was that humans would be bandaged, and their wound drained. Not monkeys. They would immediately start tugging at the dressing and cannula.
The other shocking images were similarly cleared up, with only one charge remaining: that the researchers had waited too long to euthanize three animals, including Stella, the female monkey shown in the Stern TV report. The investigating prosecutor wanted to end the inquiry, but then the attorney general intervened—which rarely happens—and requested that the prosecutor consider filing criminal charges, because the attorney general found that, “in at least one instance, the suffering of the animal [had been] severe” and “mitigating factors may have been overstated.”
At the beginning of the year, the public prosecutor filed criminal charges against Nikos Logothetis and two fellow researchers for mistreatment of animals. Logothetis appealed. And the Max Planck Society did what it had warned: less than 24 hours later, it publicly announced, “that Prof. Logothetis will not perform or guide any experiments involving animals until the conclusion of the lawsuit.” This was not legal, Logothetis argued, and sued. The two parties were asked to settle the case out of court. This has not yet come to pass.
Many scientists were appalled by the behavior of the Max Planck Society and have expressed concern about Germany as a research location. Johanna Wanka, Federal Minister for Education and Research in 2015, commented on the Logothetis case, writing that she found it “absolutely unacceptable for scientists in Germany to be threatened and pressured.” The Max Planck Society countered, “Germany as a research location is put at risk when standards of animal protection are not observed.”
Nikos Logothetis is now considering leaving Tübingen. He was in China around Easter—a scientific society had invited him to Shanghai. The Chinese received him with fanfare. A delegation accompanied him around the city, and the mayor personally welcomed him. His hosts explained that they planned to establish a research center unmatched the world over. Neuroscience practiced at the very highest level with the best people and newest technologies. It would be an honor, they said, if he, Nikos Logothetis, agreed to direct this center.
The Chinese have since made him an extraordinary offer, generous in all respects. As for monkeys, they’ve said he can have as many as he wants.