The non-lab research model has now become the dominant research model. In my area of research a collection of just five zoos and African sanctuaries recently published more scientific papers in higher impact journals than all five active U.S. chimpanzee laboratories. These non-lab researchers contributed data relevant to fighting HIV, Malaria, Parkinson’s, Autism, Alzheimer’s, and a myriad of other human ailments. They did this while studying chimpanzees that live life freely in extremely enriched environments.
As professor of evolutionary anthropology and cognitive neuroscience at Duke University, I presented at one of the Institute of Medicine information gathering meetings that resulted in last year’s report on The Use of Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research. After weighing the evidence given by a broad range of experts in all aspects of chimpanzee research, a panel of medical experts concluded chimpanzee experiments in U.S. labs are largely unnecessary.
The National Institutes of Health already began acknowledging this fact back in 1997 by refusing to allow future breeding of chimpanzees for experimentation, leading to a quickly shrinking and aging population. Correspondingly, there has not been a U.S. chimpanzee lab researcher tenured at a major research university in decades. So where is the future in US lab-based chimpanzee research?
Chimpanzees play a miniscule role in medical research today. So it’s understandable that the directors of U.S. chimpanzee laboratories feel desperate. And desperate times call for desperate measures, like the recent opinion piece frantically penned by officials at the University of Texas Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research, New Iberia Research Center, Southwest National Primate Center, and Yerkes National Primate Research Center.
But their tired characterization of the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act as a compromise to human health in favor of chimpanzees is simply false. Instead, this bill puts an end to an aging research infrastructure while freeing up tens of millions of dollars for more effective research or debt reduction.
Chimpanzee labs are extremely expensive. The directors say chimpanzees are maintained for a mere $34 dollars a day. However, this number was suddenly reduced from what was posted on the National Center for Research Resources (NCCR) website just last year when I presented at the IOM meeting. And this amount does not account for the cost of breeding that must occur if the current chimpanzee colony is to survive. The NCRR website estimated in 2007 that this alone would cost 9.2 million dollars a year.
Contrast those costs with Pan African Sanctuary Alliance member sites that have the world’s largest populations of captive chimpanzees and bonobos. It can cost as little as 25 cents a day to conduct research at these sites. With just $2 million of the $9 million it would take NCRR to breed 50 chimps, I could fund noninvasive observational research on 1,000 chimpanzees for 20 years in these African sanctuaries where I work. Passing this bill would mean we can continue to push the envelope of our understanding of mental and physical disabilities at a fraction of the current cost in U.S. labs. Without the bill taxpayers will continue to spend millions funding redundant and obsolete U.S. chimpanzee labs.
The chimpanzees in labs pay an even greater cost. The minimum welfare standards at U.S. laboratories are appalling. The U.S. Department of Agriculture allows labs to confine chimpanzees in cages 5x7x7 feet - which is smaller than most elevators. Experimenters are allowed to continue holding the chimpanzees in these tiny cages for as long as an approved research protocol demands. Many of the same research protocols that the IOM report stated were unnecessary. No one would treat a dog so poorly, much less an animal as cognitively sophisticated as a chimpanzee.
Passing this bill allows the United States to join the rest of the world in banning funds for large-scale invasive experiments on chimpanzees. Better still supporting the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act will free tax dollars and promote innovation and rapid advances in human and chimpanzee health research
Hare is associate professor of evolutionary anthropology and cognitive neuroscience at Duke University and director of 3chimps.