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Toward the End of Research on Chimps


The National Institutes of Health has taken another step toward ending medical and scientific research on chimpanzees. All of the government’s 110 chimpanzees at the infamous New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana are being made “permanently ineligible” for research.

But it’s only a small step. Just 10 of the chimps are being moved to a sanctuary – Chimp Haven. The other 100 are going to a research center in Texas. And 240 chimpanzees who are not owned by the government will still be available for research commissioned by private pharmaceutical companies.

The closing of chimpanzee experimentation for the NIH at New Iberia was prompted, at least in part, by an undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the U.S. in 2009, which showed horrendous abuse of the animals, as documented in this video from ABC Nightline. (Note that parts of the video are distressing.)

Noted primatologist Jane Goodall said about New Iberia, “In no lab I have visited have I seen so many chimpanzees exhibit such intense fear. The screaming I heard when chimpanzees were being forced to move toward the dreaded needle in their squeeze cages was, for me, absolutely horrifying. … Particularly shocking to me was a clip showing infant chimpanzees in diapers, clinging to each other, in utterly bleak, sterile conditions.”

One of the chimpanzees at New Iberia, Karen, had been taken from the wild as an infant and kept in a barren cage since 1958 when Dwight Eisenhower was president. Karen and four other elderly wild-caught chimpanzees were sent to Chimp Haven last year.

Last year, a report by the NIH’s Institute of Medicine said that almost all medical research on great apes is unnecessary. The NIH promptly suspended all further funding for research on chimpanzees. And the report gave impetus to a bill working its way through Congress. The Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act got a green light in July from a Senate committee that voted to move the legislation forward.

The Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act (S.810 and H.R. 1513) would phase out all invasive research on chimpanzees and retire government-owned chimpanzees to sanctuary while saving U.S. tax dollars and reducing the federal deficit by approximately $25 million per year. The bill currently has 173 co-sponsors in the House and 19 in the Senate.

NIH director Frances Collins told the Washington Post that the institute will need considerably fewer research chimps in this “new environment where chimpanzee research is limited to very specialized and compelling circumstances. It’s appropriate to really move in the direction of getting many of those animals out of the research arena, and today that’s what we’re starting to do.”

But the question arises nonetheless: Why are those 100 N.I.H. chimpanzees from New Iberia being sent to another laboratory rather than to a sanctuary?

Their new home will be the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio. Though the NIH says the chimpanzees from New Iberia will not be experimented on there, Texas Biomed is still a vivisection laboratory, and it’s anything but a sanctuary environment. Earlier this year, the president of Texas Biomed, Kenneth Trevett, wrote to Congress in an attempt to head off the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act. The government, he said, will save a lot of money by housing the chimps at his laboratory:

Research facilities are intrinsically more cost-effective than sanctuaries in maintaining chimpanzees … Research facilities already have the capacity to house all the chimpanzees that are available for research, whereas new facilities would have to be constructed at sanctuaries to house more chimpanzees (i.e., Chimp Haven and all other sanctuaries are filled to capacity).

That’s true, and it’s precisely why the chimpanzees should not be sent to Texas Biomed.

Trevett claims that “chimpanzees maintained at research facilities and at sanctuaries are generally healthy and their complex social and psychological needs are well provided for as they live in social groups in indoor/outdoor housing.”

But when PBS went to visit his facility, the cameras weren’t even allowed into the back areas of the institute, and senior staff actually admitted that people would be shocked by what they’d see. Dr. Robert Lanford, for example, told PBS:

“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.”

That’s exactly what we’d call “trying to hide something.”

Texas Biomed will probably make a profit by taking those 100 chimpanzees from New Iberia. And it stands to gain another benefit, too. That’s because the philosophy of this vivisection lab is to hold on to as many chimpanzees as possible, even if they’re “retired,” on the basis that they could always be put back into service if some new disease were to break out in the future that might justify more vivisection.

Texas Biomed’s Dr. John VandeBerg explained it very simply when a TV crew from NBC News paid a visit to the research center:

“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.”

As vivisection laboratories see it, our closest cousins are nothing more than books in a library—things to be kept on a shelf for years and decades, just in case we might want to “use” them for experiments.

As one person notes in a comment on Trevett’s post in Congress Blog:

In the 1950s and 1960s, Mr. Trevett’s predecessors were promising that their research with chimpanzees would cure cancer and even the common cold. They took hearts out of living chimpanzees for (failed) transplants to humans.

Mr. Trevett’s promises today are just as empty as the failures back then. It’s time to stop the self-serving self-promotion of the biomedical research industry. Give the chimpanzees the retirement, in sanctuary, that they deserve.

It’s arguable, then, that the NIH is keeping its options open by sending the chimpanzees to retirement at a laboratory – and a somewhat shady one at that – rather than to a true retirement at a sanctuary. It’s not only a cheaper alternative, but leaves the door open to rolling back the commitment at some future time.

Meanwhile, a Working Group appointed by NIH is currently making recommendations on how to implement the report by the Institute of Medicine, and what to do with the rest of the 705 chimpanzees currently owned by the government

See also:

Chimp Research: The End in Sight?

Lobbyists Try to Ward off Ban on Chimp Research

PBS Takes Up the Chimp Testing Debate