Animal-rights advocates sense turning point in chimpanzee research

Animal advocates are eager for the federal government to reverse decades-old policies that allow for chimpanzees to be used for medical tests and kept as pets, though researchers warn the changes could hamper life-saving research.

In coming weeks, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) will make decisions that could reclassify the way the federal government and private Americans are allowed to use chimps. Animal rights proponents hope the regulators will restrict the apes from being used in commercial and research activities, which they sense as indicative of a larger cultural shift away from animal testing.

"There has been a major change in our attitude about not only the scientific necessity but the ethical rightness of whether or not we should be using chimpanzees in research," said Theodora Capaldo, president of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society's campaign on chimpanzees. "We’ve seen some of the highest scientific bodies in the nation grapple with the issue, and everything seems to be pointing to an end to chimpanzee use in invasive biomedical research, anyhow."

"I think this sets a new kind of paradigm," added Kathleen Conlee, vice president of animal research issues at the Humane Society of the United States. "We're kind of shifting away from the automatic animal use and really should be doing some critiques of animal use."

Research centers, however, worry that the decisions could have devastating impacts on life-saving medical research.

Chimpanzees are humans' closest relative, sharing as much as 98 percent of our DNA. Because of their similarities, "chimpanzees have made significant contributions to science and medicine," wrote Anthony DeCrappeo, president of the research university association the Council on Governmental Relations, in opposition to the potential FWS decision last year.

In January, an advisory panel of the National Institutes of Health recommended that the agency retire nearly 90 percent of the 360 research chimps it owns and "should emphasize the development and refinement of other approaches" as an alternative to testing on chimps.

Since then, the agency's leadership has been gathering input from the public and mulling the issue internally. The NIH expects to make its final decision soon, a spokeswoman confirmed, though she did not provide a date.

If it agreed with the panel and retired most of its chimps, "that would be a significant turning point in this issue," said Conlee.

Under the advisory group's recommendation, about 50 chimps would be kept for new possible research and an independent committee would need to approve chimp use in research funded by the NIH.

Stuart Zola, head of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University, wrote to the agency in March to protest the potential change. He argued that the panel's recommendations "lack a scientific basis, would be unaffordable to implement, are already in practice or some combination of these factors."

Also in coming weeks, the FWS is expected to decide whether or not chimps in captivity should be considered endangered, as their cousins in the wild are.

The FWS usually designates wild and captive endangered animals together, but in 1990 the agency declared only wild chimpanzees endangered; those in captivity were deemed threatened, a less protected classification.

Animal advocates have pushed back against that distinction.

The split listing is "completely antithetical to the overall purposes" of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, which protects threatened and endangered species, according to a 2010 petition filed by eight animal welfare groups, including the New England Anti-Vivisection Society and the Humane Society of the United States.

After reviewing that petition, the agency found that deeming all chimpanzees endangered "may be warranted" and started an internal review in 2011.

A determination on that petition should come "in the next several weeks," confirmed Chris Tollefson, a FWS spokesman.

If all chimpanzees were declared endangered, that could mean the end of many commercial and non-NIH research uses for chimps.

"That would be the end of chimpanzee research, that would be the end of the silly movies with chimpanzees, that would be the end of the Super Bowl ads with chimpanzees and no more having chimpanzees as a pet like Michael Jackson and some others have," said John Pippin, the director of academic affairs with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which also signed on to the petition. "This one change, if the Fish and Wildlife Service decides to act on it, would solve all the issues related to what is being done with captive chimpanzees in the United States."

Research centers worry that a reclassification of captive chimps could halt needed studies and endanger lives.

The Texas Biomedical Research Institute, which hosts the Southwest National Primate Research Center and its more than 160 chimpanzees, wrote to the FWS in 2012 to protest the potential change in classification. According to the institution's website, its apes are mostly used to test vaccines and drugs for Hepatitis C.

"The reclassification of captive chimpanzees to endangered status would have devastating consequences on these critical areas of biomedical research for which chimpanzees are uniquely suitable as animal models," wrote the primate center's director, John VandeBerg, at the time.

"Human and animal lives will be lost as a result of the reclassification," he added. "It is as simple and tragic as that."

Polling seems to indicate that, slowly, public opinion may be turning against performing research on chimps and other animals.

On Monday, a Gallup poll found that approval for medical testing on animals is waning among younger Americans. Since 2001, moral acceptance of the practice by people between 18 and 34 years old has dropped by 18 percent, though 47 percent still approve.

Still, opponents of animal testing may have an uphill climb. More than 60 percent of Americans over 35 endorse the practice.