Research on chimpanzees must end

I recently testified on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatmet of Animals before a federally commissioned National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine committee charged with determining whether the United States should retain the dishonorable distinction of being one of only two countries in the world — Gabon being the other — that continues to conduct harmful experiments on chimpanzees.

While the dwindling few who still defend the cruel practice mistakenly claim that it is vital to the advancement of human health, most experts speaking at the recent meeting admitted — either voluntarily or under questioning from the panel — that experimenting on chimpanzees is not necessary to find cures for human ailments.

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In one especially candid moment at the meeting, Emory University’s Frans de Waal, as he concluded his presentation about the behavioral experiments he has conducted on chimpanzees, said: “We wouldn’t be having this meeting if ethics wasn’t an issue.” He was absolutely correct. The real question at issue here is not whether imprisoning and experimenting on chimpanzees is scientifically useful to humans or not; it is whether doing so is right to begin with.   

Of course, everyone recognizes that the ends do not justify the means and that regardless of the hypothetical benefits, there are some things we just shouldn’t do. Harming chimpanzees — our closest living genetic relatives — in experiments is one of these forbidden acts that is acknowledged as such worldwide, and is the driving force behind new legislation in the United States called the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act (H.R. 1513/S. 810) that would ban invasive experiments on great apes and retire more than 500 federally owned chimpanzees to sanctuary. Animals’ lives would be saved, as well as about $30 million per year in taxpayer money. 

In a recent New York Times column, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) — a former primate experimenter himself and co-sponsor of H.R. 1513 — wrote: “Americans can no longer justify confining these magnificent and innocent animals to traumatic invasive research and life imprisonment.”

Ironically, science has built the compelling ethical case against experimentation on chimpanzees. 

As Jane Goodall so thoughtfully and persuasively explained during her presentation at the meeting, chimpanzees are extremely intelligent, social and emotional individuals. They have incredible memories and share cultural traditions with their children and peers. They are self-aware. They laugh when they’re enjoying themselves and grimace when they’re in fear. They care deeply for their families and forge lifelong friendships. They empathize with one another and console their friends who are upset. They grieve when their loved ones pass away.

Not surprisingly, the speakers exploiting chimpanzees’ similarities to humans to defend further experimentation failed to mention that, as is true with humans, when chimpanzees are deprived of the freedom, autonomy and meaningful social interaction they need — as they necessarily are in laboratories — they languish. As a result of having to endure the terror and pain of having their bodies routinely violated for experiments and the loneliness of their tiny, barren steel-and-concrete prison cells, many chimpanzees exhibit abnormal behaviors indicative of depression and post-traumatic stress. They suffer from symptoms including social withdrawal, anxiety and loss of appetite. They pull out their own hair, bite themselves and pace incessantly. I recently met a sanctuary-living chimpanzee who spent years being tormented at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control Prevention and other government laboratories. His medical records show that on several occasions, he almost died during experiments, only to be revived and tormented further. Years later, he still has violent screaming fits several times daily, during which he scratches and tears into the flesh on his head and chest. This is the real legacy of chimpanzee experimentation in the United States.                       

Research, by nature, often leads us to conclusions that are uncomfortable and inconvenient, but science and society will never progress if people only choose to assimilate ideas that reinforce their personal biases and interests. In 2011, it lacks academic integrity to deny that chimpanzees possess all the qualities necessary for us to afford them the right not to be treated as laboratory equipment. It lacks moral integrity to continue experimenting on them or attempting to justify it by claiming that we might gain from it.

The media recently reported on new evidence that chimpanzees are altruistic. We’ve seen time and again that they prefer to help others, even at a personal cost to themselves. Humans have inherited this capability from chimpanzees, and as a society we place those who demonstrate it in high regard.

It is time for us to use the evolutionary gifts we’ve received from our fellow primates. We must all demonstrate empathy, compassion and selflessness and act now to give the more than 1,000 chimpanzees still locked in U.S. laboratories the respect and freedom they deserve.

Justin Goodman is associate director of Laboratory Investigations at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Marymount University in Arlington, Va.