A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

PBS Takes Up the Chimp Testing Debate


There are no other animals quite like them, except us. They share 99 percent of our DNA, and it shows. They scheme, plot and fight. They care for their babies, and they grieve their dead. And they love a good game of catch, emphasis on good, as I discovered.

PBS NewsHour reporter Miles O’Brien visits Chimp Haven, the 200-acre sanctuary that recently welcomed five more chimpanzees who had spent their lives in research labs.

Most of the 130 residents soon recover. Linda Brent, president of Chimp Haven recalls the very first arrivals:

They just poured out of their indoor enclosure out into the forest, all of them. And they ran all the way down. Several of them stopped a couple times and just did this wide-eyed wonder that they were out here and kind of free, finally free.

But some of them have a harder time. There’s a heartbreaking moment when we see Chris, who had spent so much time in small cell that she can never leave the safety of the walls as she walks around the sanctuary:

This is how she spends her time outside, alone, clinging to a 17-foot-high concrete wall, apparently traumatized.

PBS-chimp-haven-2-051212Before any human astronauts were vaulted into space, chimpanzees went “where no man had gone before” to ensure that it was safe for humans to follow them. When HIV hit the human population, chimps were sacrificed to the cause of finding treatments – just as they were for hepatitis and polio.

Most countries have given up the use of chimpanzees. Only the U.S. and Gabon still keep them in laboratories.

At the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, the PBS cameras visit the outside cages where some of the chimpanzees live together. Staffer Sabrina Bourgeois insists that keeping these highly intelligent, social animals in cages is not cruel. “I couldn’t work here if they were [suffering],” she protests. “I really couldn’t. I genuinely care and love these animals.”

But the cameras aren’t allowed into the buildings behind, where chimpanzees are kept in solitary confinement, routinely shot with knockout drugs (after screaming, they crash to the concrete ground), and carried away by white-coated, masked, scientists.

They do endure repeated sedations and biopsies. Medical files uncovered by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine tell some grim stories. Take Rosie, for example. At 30 years old, she has endured 15 liver biopsies, multiple blood draws, and 99 sedations, several resulting in seizures. And she is still a test subject currently at Texas Biomed.

Asked what it is that the scientists would rather we didn’t see, Dr. Robert Lanford replies:

“It’s not that we’re trying to hide something. It’s that we have a mission here that is to prove – improve human health care. And we believe that when people see that picture, they can’t listen to the mission anymore.”

He’s right – the more we see, the more we know that our closest living relatives cannot go on being treated this way. That’s why the federal government’s Institute of Medicine has advised the National Institutes of Health that the use of chimpanzees in government-funded medical research should be reserved only for studies where no suitable alternative is available or where testing on humans would be unethical, and only for life-threatening or debilitating conditions. It’s not a ban, but the NIH has suspended all new grants for biomedical and behavioral research on chimpanzees.

Meanwhile, around a thousand chimpanzees still languish in laboratories, and that’s exactly how Dr. John VandeBerg, director of the research center, wants it to stay. In an NBC report, three months ago, VandBerg said he wants to keep the animals locked up permanently – just in case:

“I think of the chimpanzees in the same way that I think of a library. There are many books in the library that will never be used this year or next year. … But we don’t know which ones will be needed tomorrow, next year or the year after.”

Regardless, Linda Brent of Chimp Haven is gearing up for what she hopes and believes will be their eventual retirement.

“We’re really excited about it. I think, in the very near future, we will be able to probably say that we have taken care of the chimpanzees that have served in medical research by giving them a fitting retirement.”

Here’s the full segment from the PBS NewsHour: