I just randomly happened upon this story about Chimpanzee Island from CNN yesterday, and it was as fascinating as it was distressing.
I’ve mentioned before that it was spending time in a lab that was conducting research on chimpanzees that convinced me I could not pursue a career in lab animal or primate medicine. It felt wrong, deep in my bones.
I was not the only one who felt this way.
In the past ten years, the scientific community has refined protocols, developed alternatives, and made a concerted effort to eliminate the use of man’s closest genetic relative for research purposes. A 2010 study commissioned by the National Institute of Health on the topic of chimpanzee research questioned the necessity of the use of chimps and recommended more stringent oversight, resulting in a temporary ban on new federal funding for chimpanzee research.
The Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act of 2011, a newly introduced bill in Congress, aims to ban all invasive research on great apes- which would cover private companies as well as facilities using federal grants. As of now, only the US and Gabon have active research projects involving chimpanzees.
So we are heading in the right direction- and thank goodness for that. I know with a sense of certainty that sits on me like a second skin that banning this research is the correct thing to do.
But the question so few people are asking, while they bask in the glory of their victory, is what happens to those chimpanzees when they are no longer needed? They are awfully long-lived primates, after all, and a life in a cage exposed to pathogens is not exactly conducive to an easy transition back into the wild.
It’s hard to find information as to these animals’ fates. A 2002 Discovery Magazine article details the haphazard way these chimps find their ways into sanctuaries if they are lucky; if they’re not, well, who knows.
The CNN video I embedded discusses an island in Liberia that is the home to a group of former research chimps. The New York Blood Center established a facility in Liberia in the 80s; when they were no longer needed, the directors realized the chimps could no sooner be “set free” in the wild any more than any other animal who has lived in captivity with no survival skills and a propensity to associate humans with food. So here they are, and sadly, their future is uncertain. Aside from the CNN article I’ve had a hard time finding information about the situation, but it’s disheartening to think that there’s no substantive plan in place while the “whose responsibility is this?” game plays out in the courts.
Proponents of animal use in research have always taken the line that it must be done with the utmost concern for ethical conduct. The undeniable benefits in the human medical field we have reaped from primate research come with them the burden of looking into the eyes of those unwilling subjects we have decided, as a society, that it was OK to destroy in the process.
How we treat test subjects during the experiments is only half the equation- discarding them when their usefulness has expired is no way to end this chapter in medical research. As glad as I am to see chimpanzee research headed towards extinction, I can only hope we do more than simply say “no more research and aren’t we grand!” We need to ensure that, during this transition, those hundreds of chimpanzees still part of research facilities are taken care of for the extent of their natural lives. This is our obligation as a society.
Thoughts? What should a company or institution’s obligation be to an animal it has used for research?