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Is an end to chimp testing in sight?

July 11, 2012

Credit: betta design

Animal testing is a tricky thing. Yes, biomedical testing on animals is a horrendous practice that is morally reprehensible. But it’s also been a necessary evil, and many animals have been sacrificed so that millions of humans could survive and thrive. Horrible as it is, testing on animals like rats, mice, rabbits, and pigs will continue until we find a suitable alternative.

But what about chimps? They are our closest genetic relatives, after all, so they should be the most suitable human counterpart for biomedical testing. According to Scientific American:

Testing on chimps has been a huge boon for humans in the past, contributing to the discovery of hepatitis C and vaccines against polio and hepatitis B, among other advances. Whether it will continue to bear fruit is less certain. Alternatives are emerging, including ones that rely on computer modeling and isolated cells.

The trouble is the levels of intelligence that chimpanzees posses. While mice might be perfectly happy living in a little cage in a lab so long as they have fresh bedding and a running wheel, a chimp would not. Chimpanzees live a long time, are highly social animals, and require mental stimulation. A lab environment is far from ideal for these intelligent creatures, not to mention the expense. Chimps have also been shown to suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

One chimp named Bobby, who grew up at a biomedical research facility in Alamogordo, N.M, had been anesthetized more than 250 times and undergone multiple biopsies before the age of 19. He lived alone in a cage, and the stressful environment caused him to stop eating and begin biting his own arm, which left him with permanent scars. His facility was shut down in 2002, but others remain.

The United States is one of only two countries that still legally allows biomedical testing on chimpanzees (the second is Gabon). The US Congress has passed several acts that have put increasing limits on testing on animals, and chimps in particular. In 2007, the US cut off funding for captive breeding programs. This last December, the US Institute of Medicine declared the biomedical and behavioral testing of chimps to be unnecessary. The number of chimpanzees used in testing has been in a decline, and one would think that this report would be the final nail in the coffin.

One would be wrong.

New Iberia Research Center, located near Lafayette, Louisiana, houses around 350 research chimpanzees and conducts studies on them for commercial clients. Animal activists from Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine have launched a petition and wrote to the director of one of the testing programs (National Institutes of Health), calling for fifteen chimps to be retired, and to allow them to live out the rest of their lives in peace at a chimp sanctuary called Chimp Haven. The response?

The NIH doesn’t own the chimps. They lease them. Therefore, “NIH does not have authority over privately owned chimpanzees and cannot decide where they are placed.” They could, of course, just stop leasing and testing on them.

The petition can be found here. Hopefully it will encourage the US to join the rest of the world in banning biomedical testing on chimpanzees.

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