The decision by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to phase out medical research on chimpanzees and to send all but 50 of the 360 who are owned by the government to sanctuaries has brought together two unlikely partners.
NIH director Dr. Francis S. Collins is effectively the dean of all medical research on animals in the United States; Dr. Jane Goodall, the famed primatologist who is one of the directors of the Nonhuman Rights Project, is a vocal opponent of research on chimpanzees. (Full disclosure: Most of my current work is also with the Nonhuman Rights Project.)
But Drs. Goodall and Collins have cooperated on the effort to bring an end to most medical research involving chimpanzees, and Dr. Collins invited her to give a talk to his staff on her extensive knowledge of our closest cousins.
That doesn’t mean that Dr. Goodall is in full agreement with the NIH. She wants ALL chimpanzees released from captivity – including the 50 who will remain in NIH-related labs, and the many more who are in private medical labs. Not to mention the great apes who are in captivity at commercial zoos and circuses, private backyard zoos, other businesses that rent out animals for movies and other entertainment, and in all other captive situations.
But the NIH move is an important start. “It’s a very, very important milestone along the way,” Dr. Goodall said.
Another important milestone is the proposal by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to classify all chimps as endangered, whether in the wild, where they’re already listed as endangered, or in captivity, where they’re only listed as threatened and given less protection.
Fish & Wildlife has set up a two-month comment period before a final decision is made, and vivisection advocates will be using this time to lobby furiously against the proposal. The Texas Biomedical Research Institute, which has about 90 chimpanzees and receives millions of dollars from the NIH, argues that chimpanzees are critical to its development of treatments for hepatitis B and C, Ebola, and other dangerous viruses that can erupt at any time. Even keeping 50 chimpanzees in labs is not sufficient, says Texas Biomed.
Remarkably, the New York Times editorial board sits on the fence, even leaning toward the side of the vivisectionists:
The upgrading of captive animals to endangered status could make it virtually impossible to conduct future research in chimps that might be highly important, which seems overly restrictive. The upgrading is based largely on a judgment by the wildlife service that the wording of the Endangered Species Act is inconsistent with granting separate legal status to animals in captivity. Legal experts need to chime in during the two-month comment period as to whether this is a correct interpretation of what the act requires.
The Times might have added, when talking about the “legal status” of chimpanzees, that as individuals, these animals have no legal status at all. They are simply the property of their owners – the government, the facilities that breed them and experiment on them, the zoos and other businesses that put them on display, and the people who keep them as caged “pets”.
Whatever decisions the NIH, the FWS or any other body makes for the welfare of these nonhumans, these decisions are made by individuals, businesses and government bodies who have complete power over their lives. The chimpanzees have no rights of their own. One way or another, they are simply enslaved to the humans who own them until such time as the work of the Nonhuman Rights Project leads to them being recognized as “legal persons” with such fundamental rights as the rights to bodily liberty and bodily integrity.
As Dr. Goodall explained, when talking to Times science reporter James Gorman, the latest moves are by no means the end of efforts to bring an end altogether to the imprisonment of chimpanzees:
“What the chimpanzee has done is to prove there is no hard and fast line dividing us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Once you admit that we’re not the only beings with personalities, minds, capable of thought and emotions, it raises ethical issues about the ways we use and abuse so many other sentient, sapient beings — animal beings — every day.”
The Times includes a video of the Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest, one of the sanctuaries that may be the futures homes of the chimpanzees being retired. The video introduces us to residents like Jody, who was used as a breeding mother at a Pennsylvania laboratory. She had nine babies, all of whom were taken from her just days after their birth.
“I often think about what they’ve lived through,” Dr. Goodall commented. “Some of them, the older ones, must remember a bit about the forest, though.”