Given that chimpanzees are humankind’s closest relatives, it only seems logical that they should merit our special respect. Yet these intelligent creatures—capable of making and using tools, having strong social and family bonds, and mirroring us in so many ways—seem to continuously suffer from our actions. Anthropocentrism has always been an enemy of chimpanzees, and sadly, because of it, chimpanzees have been deemed as “acceptable stand-ins” whenever we run into something we view as unethical to do to ourselves.
Medical experimentation is a perfect example. There are literally hundreds of chimpanzees in US laboratories that, if they could speak, would tell of being anesthetized hundreds of times, of repeated liver biopsies, blood draws, and darting, and even of living in isolation for decades. The end-result for many has been permanent traumatization, leading to self-mutilation, bizarre behavior and anxiety. Until now, lab scientists have justified the sacrifice of these chimpanzees, saying their use is essential to saving or improving the lives of thousands of humans.
But in recent years, there has finally been good news for captive chimpanzees. In June 2013, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced it would retire all but fifty of its more than 360 chimpanzees to sanctuary. The decision was based on the recommendations of a panel of national experts convened by the Institute of Medicine. The group concluded that invasive research on chimps is no longer warranted—with one possible exception, and even here, there was considerable difference of opinion. A group of about fifty chimps was to be retained in case a new emergent need might arise. Further good news arrived on November 18, 2015, when it was announced that even these remaining fifty are to be retired.
Retiring the NIH-owned chimps to sanctuary, however, has been slow to begin in earnest. Only six of the 310 chimps promised retirement in 2013 have actually been transferred to their promised new homes. And speculation continues as to whether and how much the federal government will contribute to the costs of creating additional sanctuary facilities badly needed to rectify the delays encountered. Furthermore, no comprehensive plan exists for how retirement will be achieved.
Dr. Francis Collins, head of the NIH, has, at least, prioritized the retirement of two groups of the chimpanzees. Twenty chimps at the Southwest National Primate Research Center in San Antonio, Texas will be given high priority for transfer to Chimp Haven, a government-funded sanctuary in Keithville, Louisiana, and another group of 139 chimps currently held at a facility in Bastrop, Texas are prioritized next—once sanctuary slots are available.
Beyond the NIH-owned chimps, there are several hundred other chimpanzees in biomedical laboratories not affected by these recent NIH announcements. But they, too, have received some welcome news. Last June, the US Fish and Wildlife Service reclassified captive chimpanzees such that they are now accorded endangered-species protections. As a result, chimpanzees may now be experimented upon only if it can be shown that the research will benefit wild chimpanzees. Thus far, applications for permits to conduct such research have been far and few between.
Now the bottle neck is finding sanctuary space for these as well as the NIH-owned chimpanzees so that they can finally be awarded the respect and retirement that they deserve. Chimp Haven is currently the only US sanctuary able to accept chimpanzees infected with infectious disease (the majority of chimps used in biomedical experimentation have been infected), and it is nearly full and working to further expand. Chimp Haven has opened twenty-five spots for immediate availability for NIH chimps, and extensive work is underway to create additional space and to find the funding needed. But it is clear that this is a problem in need of urgent attention. Both the federal government and private laboratories owe these chimpanzees their financial support and political will.
About the Author
Nancy J. Merrick is an accomplished physician-internist and a reviewer for the Annals of Internal Medicine. She is the creator of ChimpSaver.org, a website teaching users why chimpanzees are remarkable and enabling them to advocate on behalf of chimps and other Great Apes. She is rapidly becoming a recognized leader in the battle to save great apes. She lives in Ventura, California. Follow her on Twitter at @NMerrick.