Contributed by Izzy Hirji, Candidate, Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine. University of Guelph.
It is an historic day to be celebrated today, and the end of an era for chimpanzees. I can’t recall how long I’ve waited for this decision and even doubted that I would see it in my lifetime. As Dr. Jane says, always have hope. With hope and perseverance, almost anything can be accomplished.
The historic event I am referring to is the apparent end to biomedical research on chimpanzees. After 2 years where reports were released by the Institute of Medicine, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a review council and public commentary, the U.S. NIH announced today that research on 310 government-owned chimpanzees would end, and these lucky individuals would be retired to the national sanctuary system and funded. Many of the current biomedical studies involving chimps will be ended early. Only 50 chimpanzees will be kept in laboratory settings “on reserve” in case important medical studies are required that can’t be done without the use of chimpanzees. These 50 chimps will be reassessed in 5 years to determine if it is even necessary to keep them. The NIH approved of all but one of the 28 recommendations by the task force who worked on this issue – the one being that each chimpanzee needs 1000 square feet of space, citing that there was no scientific evidence for this at the time.
I am beyond elated by this news, and it’s a great step in the right direction – however, 50 government-owned and several hundred privately owned chimpanzees will still be confined to laboratory environments – and the fight will go on to release these chimps as well. There is however, a moratorium on breeding chimpanzees in the U.S., which has existed since 1995 – so the population will slowly dwindle as many animals reach their life expectancy. This, combined with today’s decision, are the exact mechanisms that will force us to investigate new avenues of biomedical research and reduce and replace animal usage in general. We must also never forget the thousands of other primates that suffer in labs each year, who will likely be the next target for release from laboratory testing, as public opinion moves down the phylogenetic tree with regards to similarity to humans.
Francis Collins, director of the NIH, stated “The likeness of chimpanzees to humans has made them uniquely valuable for certain types of research, but also demands greater justification for their use.” Chimpanzees are the bridge between humans and the non-human animal world, and they shall open the window for empathy towards all animal species. To Dr. Collins and the NIH I say, thank you. Thank you for recognizing the hope in these individuals’ eyes, thank you for empathizing with them, and thank you for taking action. And to the chimps, thank you for giving of your lives to us in the name of saving our own, and hopefully we can repay you with at least a spark of happiness and hope, freedom and love.
Izzy Hirji is a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine 2014 candidate at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, who specializes in wildlife conservation medicine with a specific interest in primates. He is the chair of the Board of Directors for Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary and has worked with many primates who have retired from biomedical research, as well as visited such research facilities. He is from Toronto, Ontario.
A New Era: Biomedical Research Chimps to be Moved to Sanctuaries