Bill Maher Calls/E-Mails Columbia Researchers Urging Them to Abandon Animal Research

In early May, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ Bill Maher made phone calls and spammed Columbia University researchers urging them to stop animal research there. PETA has been harassing Columbia president Lee Bollinger for several months and has filed a complaint with the New York County District Attorney’s Office seeking to have criminal charges brought against animal researchers at Columbia.

Maher’s e-mail read,

Dear Columbia Employee,

I recently heard from my friends at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) that baboons and other primates are being subjected to some very strange experiments in laboratories at Columbia University. In one experiment, pregnant baboons are pumped full of nicotine and morphine and their babies are operated on in utero. Now, I might have thought that the point was to figure out the effects of cigarettes and morphine on pregnant women and their babies, but fetuses don’t normally smoke and shoot up, even if their parents do play self-esteem tapes before they’re born. Haven’t these experimenters heard that cigarettes are called “cancer sticks”? That’s right—they’re bad for you! Who knew? As for morphine, Edgar Allen Poe knew 100 years ago that it was addictive and just about—but not quite—as dangerous as animal experimenters with too much money and too little accountability. Even Poe in a morphine-induced nightmare couldn’t have dreamed up anything as scary as this.

Although we might all know that certain drugs and compounds are addictive, exactly how they tend to result in addiction is, in many cases, still a mystery and animal research has offered a number of surprises. For example, it is known that cocaine stimulates certain receptors in the brain leading to the obvious hypothesis that the brain becomes addicted to having those receptors stimulated. But research on mice performed at Columbia demonstrated that the animals became addicted to cocaine even when genetically modified to be missing the specific receptor that cocaine acts on. The actions of addictive, dangerous drugs are far more complex and more poorly understand than Bill Maher’s non-sequiters let on.

Forget drugs—maybe they should study infections at Columbia, because apparently, this kind of thing is catching. Another experimenter is trying to study the effects of stress on women’s menstrual cycles by implanting metal pipes into the skulls of rhesus monkeys. One hundred million women in America with PMS, and this guy’s Frankensteining monkeys? It’s just a wild guess on my part, but wouldn’t he learn more from talking to actual women under stress than from plumbing monkey heads? Anyway, most women have the old-fashioned kind of stress, like money troubles and tough jobs, rather than having pipes fall out of the sky and lodge in their skulls.   

Here Maher is both lying and extremely cruel to women and their partners who struggle with infertility caused by irregular menstrual cycles. Columbia University researchers study rhesus monkeys in order to better understand the various roles played by hormones in causing regular menstrual cycles and the effects that environmental conditions, such as stress, can have on those hormones.

It’s a little disturbing to me to know that this Brian De Palma film is playing not in some dugout in Iraq, but at Columbia—not exactly your local city college. The guys playing the monkeys like cards in a poker game aren’t Osama. One’s a neuroscientist, one’s a physiologist, and—get this—one’s a pediatrician. Wouldn’t you want to take little Johnny to this doc for a sore throat? At least there was one decent human being in these labs: the veterinarian who called PETA to report her colleagues’ work habits. When she saw one of the experimenters take out a monkey’s eyeball to cause a stroke, she had a Network moment—she got mad as hell and decided that she wasn’t going to take it anymore.

Maher forgets to mention that when Columbia was first notified of possible problems in 2002, they initiated an in-house review of animal research as well as notified the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The university made a number of changes to its procedures. As for the stroke research, this is being conducted by E. Sander Connolly whose animal research has led to a number of intriguing findings, including the fact that antioxidants can cross the bloodstream/brain barrier and possibly reduce damage caused when a blood clot plugs an artery.

Which is pretty much the way I feel right now. Tossing millions of dollars of tax money out the window is one thing—think searching for ice on Mars—but wasting money to cause strokes in, disfigure, and terrorize animals puts Columbia in an ugly and embarrassing position. I’m asking Columbia to stop this now and forever, and I’m asking you to join me. You can find out more and see the pictures at or by calling PETA at 757-622-7382.

Maher, of course, couldn’t care less whether or not any of the research at Columbia could lead to life saving treatments for human beings. As Maher once told Us magazine,

To those people who say, ‘My father is alive because of animal experimentation,’ I say ‘Yeah, well, good for you. This dog died so your father could live.Â’ Sorry, but I am just not behind that kind of trade off.


E-mail to Columbia University researchers. Bill Maher, May 2004.

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