The menacing letters were addressed to Nikos Logothetis, the head of the Max Planck Institute's biological cybernetics facility in Tübingen, Germany. They began in September, 2014, after footage from an undercover animal rights activist aired on German television.
The video shows rhesus monkeys suffering the effects of skull implants: dark fluid leaking from head wounds, signs of infection, apparent vomiting. The primates are also seen locked into experimental stations, heads peering out from cylindrical chambers, hands unable to reach their own faces.
As the hate mail poured in, local protests followed. Logothetis, a renowned neuroscientist, wrote a rebuttal. In it, he accuses the groups involved in the video's publication - the German SOKO Tierschutz animal rights group, the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection and also the German television program Stern TV - of unfairly zooming in on a single "emergency situation." He also questions why the activist videotaped a monkey ripping at its own wounds yet did not inform scientists in order to prevent further injury. The research in question, he adds, is basic neuroscience, "performed without any a priori thoughts of immediate, practical ends," and his facility operates under conditions of "maximum transparency."
In January, Tübingen city prosecutors opened an investigation into whether the science there was in breach of Germany's Animal Protection Act. No charges have been filed. If a similar case from Bremen is any precedent - a final judgment was handed down in 2014 - then the experiments were conducted in accordance with Germany's Animal Protection Act.
Still, on April 30, the Max Planck Institute announced that, due to psychological and physiological stress from the scandal, Logothetis will only conduct experiments on rodents in the future.
The German scientific community reacted quickly: Isn't this a case of science bowing to the pressure of a minority group of animal rights extremists? And shouldn't Logothetis, as a scientist, have stood up for the principles of his field? And why are city prosecutors going after the scientists, and not the people firing off anonymous death threats?
A spokesperson for the Max Planck Institute, Christina Beck, says her institute as a whole will continue testing on primates.
Just the facts
A look the data, however, shows a few things. First, though monkeys are the flash point for animal experimentation protests in Germany, they constitute just a tiny fraction of the animals tested upon:
Second, the Max Planck Institute is clearly going against the grain of German and European popular opinion:
Note that Germany's Animal Protection Act does not forbid "suffering" or "pain," but it must be commensurate with the research in question. In some cases, numbing medications are even disallowed - for example, when they prevent an animal from expressing pain effectively.
A survey from 2003 showed less than one in five Germans supporting animal testing in its then-current form:
One argument in support of animal testing: Who doesn't want their loved ones to be protected from toxic chemicals or dangerous products?
Such "safety" experiments turn out to be the minority, though. Far more animals in Germany are experimented upon for the kind of "basic research" being carried out in Tübingen. Critics speak of scientists merely being "curious." Supporters say this is the kind of science that leads to life-saving or life-improving medicines and therapies by shedding light on biological interactions.
Finally, despite popular opinion, animal testing is generally on the rise in Germany.