Chimpanzees and their use in scientific experiments
Isn’t it illegal to use chimpanzees in experiments?
In some countries it is, but not in the United States. In 2013, after years of diligent work by NEAVS and others, the NIH announced it would retire from research nearly 90% of its chimpanzees. The NIH will still keep a “reserve” population of up to 50 for “future potential research,” but new studies should be unlikely and will only be allowed if stringent requirements are met. Hundreds more privately owned chimpanzees were not retired in this decision, but the new NIH regulations should prevent their future use.
A number of countries like Australia, New Zealand, and Japan have banned or limited research on chimpanzees. In 2010, a ban on the use of great apes in research in the European Union (EU) was made official under Directive 2010/63/EU, which outlines the EU’s laboratory animal welfare laws. The directive went into effect in 2013, giving the EU’s 27 member states two years to transpose the provisions of the new Directive into national legislation.
Where do U.S. laboratories get chimpanzees?
Chimpanzees were initially captured from Africa and brought to the U.S. In the 1950s, many were brought in by the U.S. Air Force for use in air and space research. In 1973, the Endangered Species Act prohibited the capture of certain species, including chimpanzees. By then, there were enough chimpanzees in the U.S. to breed future captive chimpanzees for research. Most chimpanzees used in research today were born in laboratories. Only a few wild-caught chimpanzees remain.
How many chimpanzees are currently used in laboratory research?
Exact numbers are difficult to obtain. Worldwide, there are far fewer chimpanzees than other species used in research. In West Africa, Gabon’s Centre International de Recherches Medicales de Franceville (CIRMF) primate center has approximately 56 chimpanzees for use in research.
With an estimated 1,000 chimpanzees housed in U.S. research facilities, the U.S. has the most chimpanzees in labs in the world. Very few of them are in active protocols, and the NIH retired the vast majority in 2013 (exceptions were made for those few still in active studies and 50 who are to be kept as a reserve for “future potential research").
Aren't some experiments humane, like teaching chimpanzees to read?
Although it might appear that experiments not involving medical procedures are humane, they are more harmful than generally thought. When researchers study cognition, emotion, or behavior, chimpanzees’ natural living conditions may be severely disrupted. Examples include living alone in small cages, or having restricted or no social contact with other chimpanzees. In a lab, freedom is always limited. The barrenness of a laboratory alters their mental capacities, and leads to depression, trauma, or even psychotic behaviors. Seemingly less intrusive research still creates a life of loneliness, frustration, fear, and despair.
Examples of purportedly "humane" research include "cross-fostering" studies in which chimpanzees are raised as part of a human family. These studies are among the cruelest because they result in a chimpanzee who cannot identify with his or her own species. Instead, they come to behave as a human. Due to their great strength, they typically end up isolated and confined, handicapped in their ability to interact with their own species, and prevented from interacting with the humans with whom they identify. Published in 2009, the paper "Developmental Context Effects on Bicultural Posttrauma Self Repair in Chimpanzees" further documents the psychological suffering experienced by chimpanzees used in "humane" research.
Don't we have to use chimpanzees to find cures for human illness?
In general, animals have proven very poor models for human disease research. Because they are genetically different from humans, studying illness in animals can give us inadequate or erroneous information about illness and cures in humans. Even though chimpanzees are our closest genetic relatives, the disparity is great enough that even chimpanzees do not accurately model human pathophysiology. Differences in chimpanzee and human physiology impact the outcomes of attempts to use chimpanzees to study human disease.
One example is HIV infection. In the 1980s, scientists discovered that chimpanzees could be infected with HIV and believed this would lead to cures and vaccines for AIDS. However, HIV acts differently in a chimpanzee. Chimpanzees do not become immunodeficient as humans do, do not exhibit any long-term symptoms, and HIV becomes undetectable in the blood of a previously infected chimpanzee. In light of these differences, a review article published in 2000 opined “Defending the usefulness of the chimpanzee as a model for HIV research has not only become a difficult task, but also a controversial one."1 Thomas Insel, M.D., former director of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, declared that 15 years of work in chimpanzees has produced little information relevant to humans, stating, “I can't tell you what it is that those [chimpanzee] studies have given us that has really made a difference in the way we approach people with [HIV/AIDS]."2 A huge decline in their use to study HIV/AIDS followed, such that AIDS-related chimpanzee studies fell from almost 30 studies per year in 1998 to just three in 2007 – and zero today.
Another example includes their use in testing the efficacy of HIV vaccines. All vaccines that have proven safe and efficacious in chimpanzees (as well as other nonhuman primates) have failed in humans, with one (in 2007) actually increasing a human's chance of HIV infection. NEAVS’ 2008 paper, "An Assessment of the Role of Chimpanzees in AIDS Vaccine Research," illustrates how vaccine responses in chimpanzees are not predictive of responses in humans, and that claims of chimpanzees’ critical role and importance in AIDS vaccine development is without scientific foundation.
What is life like for chimpanzees in laboratories?
This varies depending on the laboratory and experiment. There is always confinement. By law, chimpanzees may be confined in cages that measure a mere 5'x5'x7'. Though they are supposed to be given contact with their own species, it can be very minimal, sometimes only visual, and does not match their rich family network in nature. For some experiments, particularly infectious disease, it is legal to isolate them entirely, comparable to placing a human in solitary confinement. With few exceptions, laboratories are barren, even hostile environments that deprive chimpanzees of trees, sky, fresh air, grass, rivers, family, and friends. Add to this the pain of procedures, routine in many experiments. The stress and fear of never fully knowing what is happening compounds everything. Even “routine” blood draws or injections are magnified because they typically require that the chimpanzee be anesthetized. In the laboratory, anesthesia is often administered with the use of a dart gun. Darting—known as “knockdowns”—is extremely terrifying. It is not unusual for a chimpanzee to be darted several times to administer the correct dose, often surrounded by many lab personnel with dart guns. Escape is impossible. The situation can result in darts hitting the chimpanzee’s eye, scrotum, or other vulnerable body part. With darting, chimpanzees experience the pain of the projectile shots, followed by unconsciousness. When they awaken, there is often the pain or discomfort from the procedure itself. Consider Billy Jo’s story as recounted by the Montreal sanctuary Fauna Foundation, where he lived for just eight years until he sadly passed away in 2006:
In 14 years at the lab, Ch-447 was knocked down over 289 times—65 [times] with 4 or 5 men surrounding his cage pummeling him with darts…. In the lab, he would shake his cage back and forth trying desperately to prevent anyone from approaching. To this day, Billy cannot bear to have strangers grouped in front of him.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the life of a chimpanzee in a laboratory is fraught with anxiety, pain, and fear. Published in 2008, the paper “Building an Inner Sanctuary: Complex PTSD in Chimpanzees” attests to this fact.
Are there humane laws that oversee the treatment of chimpanzees in laboratories?
There are laws governing the use of some species, including chimpanzees, in laboratories. The laws purport to guarantee “humane” care. In these regulations, “humane” means that the experiment is approved by other scientists; the species used is justified; pain medication is considered unless it interferes with results—in which case it can be withheld. The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) states specifically that the law is not intended to interfere with institutionally approved research. As a result, the majority of proposed experiments are allowed, regardless of the suffering.
Chimpanzees are also covered under the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection Act (CHIMP Act). Passed in 2000, the law acknowledges a distinct status for chimpanzees and provides some federal support to retire to sanctuary those not active or “needed” in research. It also prohibits euthanasia for the convenience of a lab. However, when first passed, a major flaw in the law allowed for retired chimpanzees to be brought back into active research if certain criteria were met. This loophole was officially closed in December 2007 with the passage of the “Chimp Haven is Home Act,” which now provides permanent protection from research for all retired chimpanzees.
In 2013, the NIH’s decision to retire the vast majority of its chimpanzees also included a new set of stricter guidelines for those held in labs intended to insure their “psychological well-being.”
Why single out chimpanzees for protection from research and not other animals?
Chimpanzees’ emotional and cognitive similarity to us presents a disturbing discrepancy in our ethics and forces us to ask: what characteristics protect humans from research on a moral and legal scale, while we continue to use chimpanzees? There is neither an ethically nor scientifically justifiable answer. The historic work of Project R&R has led to the first non-human species being afforded legal protection from use in harmful research. If chimpanzees – humans’ closest relative – are not acceptable or beneficial for human health research, why other animals? The groundbreaking work of Project R&R is a cornerstone that will lead to further protections to other animals.
To start, NEAVS’ What About Monkeys? initiative stresses that the rest of non-human primates fare no different in labs than chimpanzees or humans would. They suffer symptoms of severe stress and psychological breakdowns such as self-mutilation, endless spinning, and other abnormal behaviors. Common sense, the capacity for empathy, as well as scientific research itself shows – without question – that monkeys suffer severe psychological distress in labs. In response, NEAVS and a coalition of animal protection groups have petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to establish clear and enforceable regulations for the psychological well-being of monkeys and apes used in biomedical research laboratories.
What will we do with chimpanzees if we release them from laboratories?
Chimpanzees, like all captive animals, cannot be released to the wild. They are strangers to that world. The money spent to house and experiment on them must be redirected to provide quality, environmentally rich sanctuaries. This adds no new costs, since public tax dollars already pay for them to be held in laboratories. Funds for their lifetime care have been allotted under the CHIMP Act, and the caring public is showing its support through donations to sanctuaries that provide for chimpanzees rescued from research. Chimpanzees deserve restitution for the decades of harm humans have caused them. Restitution is affordable and the responsibility of a compassionate society. The captive chimpanzee population will dwindle through natural deaths, while the end to federal funding to breed chimpanzees will help assure that no future generations are condemned to a life in captivity.
Have any chimpanzees made it out of a laboratory and into sanctuary?
A growing number of sanctuaries house hundreds of chimpanzee survivors from laboratories, entertainment, or the “pet” trade. Sadly, once removed from their natural habitat or bred in captivity, chimpanzees can never be truly free. Their disrupted lives are condemned to dependency on humans. Their incredible strength requires their confinement. We can never give back to chimpanzees what we have taken from them—the right to be free and live autonomously. Still, several sanctuaries do outstanding work and give them the best possible life captivity can provide. Save the Chimps, the Fauna Foundation, and the Center for Great Apes are three such examples.
 Nath, B.M., Schumann, K.E. & Boyer, J.D. (2000). The chimpanzee and other non-human-primate models in HIV-1 vaccine research. Trends in Microbiology 89, 426-431.
 Smaglik, P. (1999). AIDS vaccine researchers turn from chimps to monkeys. The Scientist 13, 7.