This interview was conducted and edited by Ashland Creek Press intern Rachel Harris.
Q: What inspired you to write this story?
A: The idea for this story first came from a news article I read a few years ago about Russia’s intention to send primates on space missions to Mars. I knew that many animals, including monkeys, apes, dogs, tortoises, and mice, were sent into space prior to humans in the early days of space programs. Over thirty primates were sent into space by the U.S. and Russia during the development of space travel technology, though the U.S. sent by far the majority of this number.
These animals suffered horrific fates, including suffocation, heatstroke, dehydration, and fatal heart attacks. Many who survived space flights were killed afterwards or, in the case of long-lived primates, spent the rest of their lives captive in laboratories or zoos. Sadly, animals are still sent into space—for example, a recent experiment sent rats with fractured legs to the International Space Station to observe how they heal—but both the U.S. and Russia had not routinely used monkeys since the heyday of the Space Race.
I was deeply distressed by this news, and by the fact that we humans continue to inflict suffering and pain on animals for our own gain. I don’t know the current status of this Mars program, but I wanted to write about a monkey in training for spaceflight from his perspective, and that’s how this story was born.
Q: What was your writing process?
A: For this story, my writing process was fairly linear. I tried to put myself in the position of this monkey, who’d been stolen from his home and family in the wild and transported to a laboratory. What would it feel like, sound like, smell like to him? From there, the story just naturally progressed from event to event until the conclusion. I didn’t actually know how Ivan’s story was going to end, so that developed as a surprise to me when I wrote it. I knew that I wanted the story to remain centered on Ivan and his experiences, so I basically let his character lead me in the writing.
Q: What research did you do to help you write from the animal’s perspective?
A: I did a lot of research and reading on primate behavior, familial structures, and emotional expressions. I also read a lot of experimental protocols and scientific publications that used monkeys in all sorts of inhumane ways, in addition to learning specifically about spaceflight experiments. I attended some conferences about primates on topics like laboratory housing and enrichment, and I was even able to visit a laboratory that housed macaques. I also spoke with some primate experts. Gathering all of this knowledge helped me to understand how a monkey might react and what he might be feeling in a given situation. I can’t say I got it exactly right, but I hope I’ve been able to foster some understanding of the complex emotional lives of primates, and how much they suffer in laboratory experiments.
Q: Which writers inspire you the most?
A: I’m really inspired by the work of Karen Joy Fowler, Joy Williams, Nnedi Okorafor, Rikki Ducornet, and Ursula K. Le Guin.
Q: Why did you choose primates to focus on in this piece?
A: I don’t think a lot of people realize just how much primates are still used in experiments and how horrible their lives are. I wanted to present a primate in this situation as an individual, but I also want to bring the point across that this is happening all over the U.S., and all over the world. And it’s not just about the painful and distressing experiments they are subjected to. The entire system takes everything away from primates—their families and friends, their own self-determination, and their very basic health and well-being.
Monkeys destined for laboratories are either caught in the wild or born in large breeding facilities, taken away from their mothers to be raised in nurseries, transported across the country to labs, held alone in small cages, and subjected to any number of painful experiments. And most of them die in those cages—they never get to retire. As animals who rely heavily on complex social support networks, they suffer greatly. I think it is imperative that we recognize how deeply unethical it is to conduct experiments on primates (or any sentient animal, for that matter).
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from your story?
A: I hope readers will come away with an understanding that primates experience significant emotional lives and do not consent to being used by humans. I hope this story contributes in some small way to breaking down the myth of human exceptionalism, and when readers come across a news report about a scientific experiment, I hope they really begin to question who suffered and died for that experiment.
Ingrid L. Taylor’s story, “Liftoff,” appears in Among Animals 3. Ingrid is an award-winning poet, writer, and veterinarian whose work has appeared in Southwest Review; FERAL: A Journal of Poetry and Art; Horse Egg Literary; and others. She’s received support from Playa, the Horror Writers Association, and Gemini Ink, and she received her MFA from Pacific University.