Last year I had a chance to visit the Fauna Foundation, a sanctuary in Montreal for chimpanzees “retired” from research laboratories and entertainment. The Fauna Foundation received a lot of press after writer Andrew Westoll wrote The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, which is an account of his time as a volunteer at the sanctuary (I recommend reading it!). This sanctuary serves an important function because they offer peace and relative freedom to chimpanzees that have only known a caged existence as test subjects in biomedical facilities. As an outspoken critic of this research, I am enormously grateful for these sanctuaries. In biomedical facilities, chimpanzees often live in unsanitary conditions without areas for foraging or an ability to interact with other members of their own species. Many chimpanzees that are eventually transferred to sanctuaries suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
That is why I was very happy to hear yesterday that the United States would be largely phasing out biomedical research on chimpanzees. The U.S. is the only country that still keeps chimpanzees for this type of research. Austria, New Zealand, the Netherlands the United Kingdom introduced bans on using chimpanzees for biomedical research in 2006. This is not just because using chimpanzees as guinea pigs is morally abhorrent. It is also because chimpanzees as models offer us nothing that can’t be gained from utilizing lab-grown human cell cultures. Considering that approach is cheaper, more efficient, and useful in biomedical research, there is really no reason to continue large-scale research on our closest relatives.
The United States new proposed federal rules wouldn’t limit all research, but it does place a stranglehold on new research. Here is the statement from Working Group on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) website:
“NIH will not fund any new or other competing projects (renewal and revisions) for research involving chimpanzees and will not allow any new projects to go forward with NIH-owned or supported chimpanzees.”
Of the 451 chimpanzees currently being used by the NIH, 50 of them will be kept for scientists seeking to develop a vaccine for hepatitis C. However, it is unknown how the 401 retired chimps will be funded or where they will go. Some have already been transferred to Chimp Haven in Louisiana, but this sanctuary does not have enough space or funding for all of the chimpanzees. Congress will need to make a decision in 2013 about where to get the 20,000 a year required for the care each chimpanzee.
Although these are fantastic developments, we still need to make sure that all organizations involved follow through on their promise to phase out biomedical research on chimpanzees completely. As the final report by Working Group states: “[alternative] models will continually raise the scientific bar for justifying the use of chimpanzees.” Just because chimpanzee share 98% of our genome does not mean they are ideal candidates for vaccine development. Eventually, the United States should push for a final complete ban on this research, as has already been done by the countries mentioned above.
However, I would take this one step further. As amazing as sanctuaries like Chimp Haven and the Fauna Foundation are, they are only temporary solutions to a greater problem: chimpanzees in North America. Chimpanzees evolved to live in rainforests and savanna in sub-Saharan Africa. They do not belong on this continent. In the future, I hope that once biomedical lab research on chimpanzees is completely in our past, we can work towards a transition from North American to African sanctuaries.
In African sanctuaries, chimpanzees can be offered the ability to enjoy the outdoors year round, which is something they cannot enjoy in North America. Also, once in Africa, we can work towards reintegrating future generations into wild populations. As I have written about before, genetic analysis now gives us the ability to identify the populations that chimpanzees originate from. This would be useful for both the personal lives of the chimpanzees themselves, and for the long-term health and survival of chimpanzees in the wild.
Chimpanzees in biomedical labs, and chimpanzees in North America more broadly, are the product and extension of a colonial infrastructure. They were stolen from their homes in the wild for entertainment purposes in zoos, theme parks, and the circus. Throughout the 20th century, many scientists deprived chimpanzees of a real existence. We must learn from what Jane Goodall taught us: these animals have a concept of self; they have feelings and emotions that are as real and deep as any humans. She has been a constantly outspoken critic of what our system has done to our family:
“If we do not do something to help these creatures, we make a mockery of the whole concept of justice.”
I suppose that is why my happiness today is still only a partial happiness. It is a big victory, and perhaps a new era, for those that care about chimpanzees. However, more work needs to be done. In the 21st century, I hope that we can undo the wrongs of the 20th century.