The Chimpanzee Challenge
All Animals (a Time inc. custom publication for the Humane Society of the U.S.), Fall 2005
by Christina Frank
Rachel Weiss will never forget her years spent working in a primate research lab, where she cared for thirteen chimpanzees who were being used in AIDS-vaccine experiments.
“They lived in a dungeon,” recalls Weiss, who worked at Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, GA, from 1994-1996. “The cages were in a room with no windows or natural light. The water bottles leaked, so the cage floors were always wet, and the chimpanzees threw feces at each other and at the humans, most likely out of frustration.”
Things started looking up for the animals in 1999, when the USDA proposed a policy geared toward improving the psychological well-being of captive primates--but it was challenged by the research community and is currently on hold. Consequently, bleak scenarios like the one Weiss describes continue to exist. More than 1,300 chimpanzees--the majority of them captive-bred--currently live in biomedical research labs in the United States, which uses more apes and monkeys in research than any other country in the world. Naturally wide-roaming, sociable creatures who live in groups, chimpanzees in labs are often housed in cages as small as 5 X 5 X 7 feet-- sometimes with a cagemate or two.
Chimpanzees have been viewed for years as ideal research subjects because they are so similar to humans, sharing over 98 percent of our genetic code. They’ve been used to test everything from the safety of space travel (in the 1960’s) to vaccines, as well as in research on AIDS, hepatitis and malaria. Today, they are predominantly used in infectious-disease experiments, most commonly for hepatitis C.
For those concerned about the well-being of these animals--including a majority of the American public--ethical considerations are paramount. A recent poll by Zogby International showed that 90 percent of Americans finds it unacceptable to confine chimpanzees in small laboratory cages, while 54 percent disapprove of them being subjected to painful research procedures. Bolstering the ethical argument is behavioral research, which
has proven that chimpanzees are complex creatures, capable of feeling emotions like depression, anxiety, distress and empathy.
“Working with chimpanzees taught me that they have thoughts, ideas and opinions just like we do,” says Weiss, who left the research community and is now president of the Laboratory Primate Advocacy Group (www.lpag.org). “It’s especially sad because they understand that this is a lousy way to live,” she says.
Ironically, chimpanzees don’t actually make very good research subjects. In the 1980s, hundreds of them were bred specifically for AIDS studies, which largely failed because the virus replicates differently in them than in humans. And, being sensitive and highly intelligent, they’re often affected both psychologically and physically by the deprivations of life in a laboratory. “If an animal is distressed or anxious, it has an effect on its immune system, which can skew study results,” says Kathleen Conlee, Director of Program Management for Animal Research Issues at the HSUS.
For these and other reasons, the HSUS is proposing legislation that would ban the use of chimpanzees in invasive biomedical research--defined as inoculation with an infectious agent, surgery, or biopsy conducted for the purpose of research and not for the health of the chimpanzee. According to one HSUS analysis, 59 percent of grant projects from 2000-2002 were characterized as invasive. (Non-invasive research--such as language and behavior studies--would still be acceptable.)
Conlee points out that on a practical level, keeping chimpanzees housed in labs is extremely costly. Caging, food and staff are paid for with federal grants, i.e., taxpayer money. The National Research Council (NRC) has determined that euthanizing chimpanzees is unacceptable, so “retired” animals often remain in labs for the rest of their lives--potentially a long time, since the average life span for a captive chimpanzee is 50 years. Part of the legislation, therefore, would stipulate that retired chimpanzees be permanently relocated to appropriate sanctuaries.
One such place, known as Chimp Haven, opened this past spring in Shreveport, LA, and is the first sanctuary to be formed via a partnership between the government and a private nonprofit organization. Not only do the animals (who number 20 right now) benefit from the naturalistic setting and group living at the sanctuary, but the cost to the public is reduced because Chimp Haven is required to raise 35 percent of its own funding; furthermore, the large outdoor enclosures in which the animals are kept are relatively easy to maintain, which also brings costs down.
Chimp Haven was built as a result of the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection Act, passed in 2000. The goal of the CHIMP Act, as it’s called, was to establish a national sanctuary system for chimpanzees used in research. It set an important precedent, says Conlee, by showing that chimpanzees are not disposable objects.
“Shortly after the CHIMP Act went into effect, more and more countries started saying they were going to end chimpanzee research,” Conlee says. Currently, The United Kingdom, The Netherlands, New Zealand and Sweden have policies or legislation prohibiting research on great apes. Other countries, such as Austria, have joined the effort as well, though they don’t yet have official policies.
Still, The CHIMP Act doesn’t go far enough. For one thing, it only provides for animals used in research funded by The National Institutes of Health (NIH), not for those used in private experiments--and it doesn’t guarantee permanent sanctuary. The NIH, which currently holds title to about 600 chimpanzees, decides which ones go to Chimp Haven and can take any of them back if they’re needed for a specific research project. “That was disappointing for the protection community, a real blow,” says Weiss. “True sanctuaries are places where animals stay permanently.”
Given that chimpanzees aren’t even good models for most scientific research (they’ve proved almost useless in Multiple Sclerosis experiments as well as in HIV research), banning their use entirely shouldn’t make much of a difference to medical progress, says Conlee. In fact, in the past four years, the number of federally-funded research projects involving chimpanzees was cut in half. And alternatives are already in the works. Scientists have discovered ways to use human cell and tissue cultures for some kinds of studies, which doesn’t just spare chimpanzees, but is “better science,” according to Theo Capaldo, Ed. D, president of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society.
“There are areas of research where they still use chimpanzees, but they don’t have to,” says Capaldo. “Even though the chimpanzee model has failed time and time again, scientists have a hard time admitting it.”
Conlee agrees that there’s still too much reliance on chimpanzees in the scientific community and that there needs to be more funding for alternatives. “Maybe,” she says, “it will take a ban on all chimpanzee research to really make it happen.”
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SIDEBAR: WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP
1. Contact your legislators by going to www.congress.org and let them know that you would like to see an end to invasive chimpanzee research.
2. Contact the National Center for Research Resources and request that they continue the moratorium on chimpanzee breeding, which has been in effect since 1995, but may be lifted by the NIH this year.