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?
With the wind and my speakers not working properly, I could only understand bits of the video. Your post elaborated some. Then you asked a hard question.
Minimum obligation of an institute or company should be to keep former research animals in a healthy and comfortable situation where they are content and not stressed. That’s easier said than done though. Who defines those criteria? Who polices them, especially in a country not our own? Ideally, no animals would be used for research, but that is not going to happen. Chimps I may feel strongly about; rats, not so much.
Don’t know, Dr.V. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.
Sue W. says
Tough to read. Tough to acknowledge. The next question is…what can I do about it?
Oh, Dr. V., an issue close to my heart that I could talk about for hours!
Great ape research is on its way out. The United States is the only country besides Gabon that still uses apes as medical models. Researchers have used chimpanzees for Hepatitis C studies for over 40 years, and the progress they have made is miniscule. Despite the fact that apes don’t express the same symptoms and complications as humans do, we continue year after year to subject them to research that leads nowhere. Proponents tout that our vaccines for polio, Hep A and B came from ape research. That may be true, but in this age of insane medical technological breakthroughs, it doesn’t seem logical or cost-effective to plod away at a chimp model that very rarely produces the results they hope for. It’s embarassing that the entire world finds ape research unpalatable, and yet our country keeps holding on.
However… I worked at a sanctuary that cared for former research chimpanzees. As sanctuaries are always private non-profits, this one was always running in the red, with virtually no money. Although the chimps had loving keepers, and by law have to be provided with environmental enrichment, they were in concrete cages with chain link fence. Although they had toys and sunshine and friends, it was still sad not be able to see them brachiate or roll in grass or have room to run. But at least they were safe from research!!!
Then I attended to the American Society of Primatology conference a few years ago. One of the panels was “The use of chimpanzees in biomedical research.” Not one of the panel members was anti-research. I was apalled that the lecture was only going to voice one side, so I was prepared to argue! However… once I saw the photos of where these animals “played,” I was shocked. While they lived in cages during medical procedures, every day they were ushered out to a huge domed play area that was as big as a football field. They had grass, they could run and braciate and sit in the sun. They had toys and climbing structures that our sanctuary couldn’t even dream of affording. I was stunned (and jealous! Of a research facility!) Although I was still staunchly against research on great apes, I realized that everything isn’t black and white. The drug companies have the bucks to give them the best enrichment money can buy. The animals suffer through experimentation, but in one way they have much better lives than the “safe” chimps at the sanctuary!!! I realized that I couldn’t be 100% disparaging of drug companies. Although I hate what they do and think they are still living in the dark ages, many places do better for the chimps than we did. And yet we get applauded for caring for these former research animals, and people can breathe easily knowing that they are “safe.” Yes, safe… and desperately bored every day of their life.
Regarding what can be done once these chimps are released, I think there should be a law stipulating that once a chimp is retired, the company who owned it must provide a retirement stipend for the rest of the chimp’s life. I don’t think that the drug companies would agree to the full lifetime cost of their care. But if my sanctuary had even received $500 a month per chimp, that would have gone a LONG way. And $500 a month… give me a break, drug company CEOs probably spend that on wine at dinner. I think this law should cover the entertainment industry as well. If they choose to use a chimpanzee in their commercial, they should have a vested interest in it once it becomes too aggressive to be handled and trained anymore, and has to be unceremoniously dropped at a cash-strapped sanctuary.
For anyone who is interested in learning more about the chimp sanctuaries in this country that are revolutionizing the sanctuary model, here are the good ones:
http://www.chimphaven.org (one of the few that is partially government funded.)
Dr. V says
You are awesome. Thank you so much for all of that.
Susan Montgomery says
Leigh makes a great point. Which is better? A cement cage in a cash strapped ‘sanctuary’? or the enriched environment that a research company with money can provide? (Can provide, but there is no guarantee all companies do) I can’t answer that, because no one ever asked the chimps if they WANTED to be in the research.
Life in a cage is no life at all, no matter what animal it is. I would rather have the chimps humanely euthanized than warehoused in cement tombs.
I also wonder about the advisability of releasing into the jungle (even on an island) research chimps that have been exposed to dangerous diseases. If just one gets out to the wild population, and infects them, that could not only destroy the wild chimp population but also the humans who may come in contact as well.
I think the companies who made money off these chimps should provide for a retirement in an evironment-enriched sanctuary.
As far as whether they were better off at the sanctuary or being euthanized, I wrestled with those thoughts every day. Was life in a cage worth it?
But, I know more than a handful of people who have birds that they keep in their home that they give less attention to then the chimps receive. Where do we draw the line? Now if the chimps were truly suffering… starving, pulling out their own hair, becoming aggressive to one another, becoming psychotic… that would be another story. Considering euthanasia may not be such a hard decision. These chimps were bored. They probably don’t know anything different… they don’t know that they could be walking on grass and swinging on jungle gyms…
I think while they are alive, I still have hope that their fates will change. We carry that burden. Hopefully by being aware, and caring about their fate, it WILL change.
Quite an affecting video. A couple weeks ago I read an excerpt from a book called “The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary” which is about a sanctuary in Montreal in la belle province, of all places, looking after some quite psychologically bruised ex-testing chimps from NY State. And then of course I ran out and bought the book (which is a very good, quick read and I recommend it to you). I know pretty much nothing about apes but that read suggested to me that there’s no retirement at all that can heal the animals after their “career” is done.
The book also mentioned that a lot of “pet” chimps are given to testing facilities when their owners realize the cute little babies become dangerous wild animals, and are willing to give them to anyone to take ’em off their hands quickly.
Anyway, the excerpt is here: http://www2.macleans.ca/2012/03/01/life-with-binky-and-chance/
Love Leigh’s comments and this post. Honestly, I think the organizations that ‘use’ these animals for research should be responsible for them for life, but I can see now that just won’t happen, unless they do it voluntarily. Maybe an effort to get the pharmaceutical companies and research organizations/facilities to work together to find a solution is what is needed. It would be a shame if small, private nonprofit sanctuaries had to bear the brunt of the ‘cleanup’ when it’s the large companies that have taken credit for any achievements made. Such an effort would require finessing, communication, teamwork…not a governmental mandate or something similar.
Awareness of the problem is the best first step, so thank you Dr. V and Leigh for shedding some light on this issue 🙂
How human to use an animal that way and also how human to not have regard for the consequences.
sandy weinstein says
i have a very hard time watching shows like this. i get so upset with the treatment of animals. i am very upset with obama for lifting the ban on the slaughter of horses. i am upset that in nc, b/c of the pork barrel people, the money they give our legislators, we cant get a handle on the puppy mills. nc is one of the top places for puppy mills. they are totally banned in ireland. nc still have stores that even sell dogs, cats, etc. i get upset with people that get animals then find out how expensive it is to care for them, so they dump them, many horses are dumped on the side of the road, or take them to a shelter or whatever, no thought whats so ever. i am upset with the bureau of land mgt and their treatment of the wild horses, our heritage. they round up the horses w/ airplanes, kill them, slaughter them. the public does not really know the reality of the blm, it is a terrible program. several yrs ago, the head people were selling horses to the slaughter houses and pocketing the money. i tried to get a job w/ the blm when i was in dc. i was told unless i had a lot of connections or knew someone high up in the federal gvt, forget abt even applying….if it was not for jane goodall ?, i dont think we would be stopping this program even today….she has devoted her life to helping animals..i get upset w/ people who put down their pets b/c they cant afford to pay the vet bills to care for them, so they have them put down instead of trying to help them (cancer treatments, etc.). i am lucky that i live in the same city as the new ncsu vet school. they do have a program that helps people to pay for vet. service if you are unable to do so….it is thru donations to the school. i feel that we do not do enough to prosecute animal abusers. look at michael vick. i would much rather spend my time with animals than people. guess that is why i live in the country, nearest neighbors are a mile away, mail box is a mile away, dont leave my house for days sometimes, just spend the time w/ my 3 little girls….(4-legged children)…
any animal that has been used for any type of research deserves to be taken care for the rest of his/her life, and given a wonderful life….
i dont even like the circus….if you go behind the scenes the animals are not taken care of very well.
i could go on and on…
and the drug companies, they prices they charge for drugs….look at the billions they make and what they do to these animals. the pregnant mares that were kept standing in a tiny space, tied up, for premarin, the foals killed. it is just disgusting! washed up race horses are sent to slaughter houses, they may only be 3/4 yrs old. look at the drugs they use on the horses, the noses bleeding, pain killers so they cant feel their pain. look at the tenn. walking horse industry, slicing the coronet band and pouring acid in the the cuts, to make the horses pick up their feet higher, they even have shoe pads with spikes on the inside, so the every time they put down their foot, the spike goes into the live part of the foot; they pole jumpers, use electric spurs and shockers; they put stuff in the eyes to make show horses use their ears, some horses eventually go blind; they even used to wire the ears forward, the ear was pierced and a little wire ran from ear to ear; they ginger (put hot ginger around the anal area and inner back legs) to make them hold their tail up, they cut the tail bone and put in a harness. the show horses wear shoes that weigh several lbs. and the shoes are padded very high. which is why many horses will bow a tendon, or wing, etc. they back up the horses for long periods of time, so they become stringhault. then they have lots of action in the rear. look what breeders have done to many of the dog breeds today, the boston terrier did not used to have such a flat face, bull dogs have to have surgery so they can breath, and eyelid surgery so they can see. bigger dogs used to live longer than 8/9 yrs…german shepherds did not used to be so low in the rear……humans have done all of this…i hate it….