A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Going Ape

Two meetings may spell the end of medical research on chimps

Photo by Jurek Wajdowicz, courtesy of the Arcus Foundation

By Michael Mountain

In May, 1959, during the early days of the space program, Baker and Able became the first monkeys to survive being rocketed into space. They were accelerated to 10,000 miles an hour and experienced gravity forces 38 times what we experience on earth. Ironically, Able died a few days later, not from the effects of the flight, but while under anesthesia for unrelated surgery. But Baker, who weighed just 11 ounces, went to live in a research facility in Alabama until he died in 1984.

One of the people who worked on the Baker flight, Roscoe G. Bartlett, is now a Republican congressman and one of the sponsors of the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act that would phase out all invasive research on great apes.

This week, in Washington D.C., as part of the exploration of the merits of the bill, there’s a public hearingin progress to establish whether experimentation on chimpanzees provides any medical benefits to humans. Rep. Bartlett says there are no real benefits:

“Nine countries, as well as the European Union, already forbid or restrict invasive research on great apes. Americans have to decide if the benefits to humans of research using chimpanzees outweigh the ethical, financial and scientific costs.

“The evidence is mounting that they do not. For one thing, many new techniques are cheaper, faster and more effective, including computer modeling and the testing of very small doses on human volunteers. In vitro methods now grow human cells and tissues for human biomedical studies, bypassing the need for whole animals.”

Rep. Bartlett notes that ending chimpanzee research and retiring the chimps to sanctuaries would save taxpayers $30 million a year and would save untold suffering to the animals involved. He concludes:

“Americans can no longer justify confining these magnificent and innocent animals to traumatic invasive research and life imprisonment.”

At the same time as the medical hearing is taking place in Washington D.C., another group is gathered in New York City, and I’ve been participating in this one. It’s organized by the Arcus Foundation, which works to protect great apes in the wild and in captivity, and includes about two dozen people from the fields of science and medicine, psychology, law, philosophy and animal rights.

Both meetings may help lead to the same end result — an end to the use of our fellow great apes in medical research — but they also illustrate the dichotomy at the heart of our relationship to these animals. The meeting in D.C. is primarily about the wellbeing of humans, while the meeting here in New York is primarily about the wellbeing of non-humans.

One of the main ethical conundrums surrounding experimenting on chimpanzees has always been that if you justify doing these experiments on the basis that chimps are very similar to humans, you have a harder time justifying it morally.

If, on the other hand, you argue that it’s OK to experiment on them because they’re NOT like us, then you have a harder time arguing the medical case for doing it at all.

The fact is more and more people feel queasy about locking our closest living relatives in cages for their whole lives and testing out diseases, procedures and drugs on them. So sooner or later, experimenting on chimps will end. That’s not much comfort to the millions of other animals in laboratories on any given day, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

The Arcus Foundation also promotes social justice issues, like advancing equal rights for gay and lesbian people. And promoting social justice for non-humans is, for them, a natural extension of the same mission.

I’ll let you know what I learn from the meeting here, and also if there’s any information forthcoming from the other meeting that’s going on down in D.C.