Stop the experiments on chimpanzees now

I recently presented a case study at the annual meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association in Pittsburgh, PA, on Seve, an 18 year old chimpanzee who was used in a variety of taxpayer-funded experiments at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. For 9 years Seve lived by himself in a small cage, had daily nose and throat cultures, multiple liver biopsies, had half of his liver-lobe and both armpit lymph nodes removed, and had weekly blood draws and anesthesia by being traumatically shot with a dart gun. His laboratory records indicate that he stopped breathing four times in the middle of surgeries and even woke up once mid-procedure.

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While he was lucky enough to make it out of a laboratory alive and find sanctuary at Florida’s Save The Chimps, as a result of this prolonged and repetitive trauma, Seve exhibits symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Chimpanzees are intensely social individuals, but like we see in humans suffering from PTSD, Seve is now socially withdrawn and he gets physically and emotionally upset when confronted with reminders of traumatic events from his past. Seve is prone to screaming fits and also engages in self-injurious behaviors, such as scratching at his own flesh.

As upsetting as these results are, unfortunately his case is not an anomaly. Other studies have found that as many as 44 percent of chimpanzees retired to sanctuary from deplorable captive conditions in laboratories, roadside zoos and elsewhere suffer from PTSD.

The bright side is that my longitudinal research demonstrates the resiliency of chimpanzees and the healing power of sanctuaries. A year after I first met Seve, he is spending more time outdoors interacting with other chimpanzees and has drastically reduced the frequency with which he harms himself. Time may not heal all wounds, but having freedom and friends helps.

One thousand chimpanzees like Seve are still locked in American laboratories even though they suffer immensely and it is widely acknowledged, including by the prestigious Institute of Medicine, that they are not needed to advance biomedical research. Congress should pass the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act to protect chimpanzees from this unnecessary cruelty and let 600 other chimpanzees join Seve in sanctuaries and begin their own healing process.

Lopresti-Goodman, Ph.D., is an experimental psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Marymount University in Arlington, Va., where she teaches, among others, a course on abnormal behavior in chimpanzees.