jerom 2002

Jerom Chimpanzee should have been twenty years old this month. Had he lived the life of his ancestors, he might be living in a riverine forest, making knowledgable decisions about where to spend his time – in a fig tree overlooking the savanna, chasing red-tailed colobus through the canopy, following a love-interest off to a secret place. He might still have grown to be a low-ranking male, but without the fear that distinguished his personality in the laboratory.

Jerom never lived this life – he was created for humans, so that we may live without disease. Although intelligent and often full of opinions, such individuals are not consulted before their lives are stolen from them for use in biomedical research.

Jerom lived until nearly the age of fourteen at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center. He was taken from his mother when he was an infant, raised as if an orphan, and experimentally infected with HIV at the age of two. When I met him twelve years later he was alone and dying.  He was distrustful of humans, unsure of himself, and frustrated at his sad lot in life. He suffered in almost every way a caged chimpanzee can suffer, and then he died. To the people who created him, his only value was the data that came from his blood. To me, everything about Jerom was of value.

If Jerom was alive today, it is likely that he would still be living alone, in sight of other chimpanzees he’d never be able to touch. If he was twenty, he would have spent the last eighteen years indoors, without even once in that time feeling a cool breeze or warm sun on his face. In eighteen years he would have spent every single day in a wet concrete cell, his only entertainment provided periodically by a human, in the form of a small plastic toy, shreddable box or newspaper, or maybe a cartoon on television. He would have spent the last eighteen years eating only what humans decided he would eat, and only when they decided – no matter what he really wanted or liked, no matter when he was hungry.

Jerom died six years ago and no longer has to endure such treatment – conditions determined by lawmakers and researchers to be “humane” and codified by the Animal Welfare Act, but known to be barbaric and cruel by those of us who have been there. Jerom may be lucky – ten of his fellow research subjects are right now continuing to live this life. Two of them – Buster and Nathan – are caged alone as was Jerom, and have been for years. For years. Imagine it – hundreds upon hundreds of days without the touch of another save a latex-and-tyvek garbed human once in a while, and then only at the whim of the human. The other eight live in pairs and trios, but suffer the same conditions of confinement and disrespect.

Buster and Nate are both a bit older than Jerom would have been now. The reasons for their social deprivation are unknown. Neither are known to have developed clinical symptoms of AIDS, so its likely they’re not alone for health reasons. Maybe it’s inconvenient for Yerkes to give them the social outlets they no doubt crave.

Every year I tell this tale to move your heart. If you are reading this because you are a part of the struggle for the independence of biomedical research subjects, fight on – they need you still.

If you are reading this and remain unmoved, permit me to try a different tack: in the nearly twenty years that chimpanzees have been used as biomedical research subjects for HIV prevention and vaccines, no drugs, vaccines, insights or any other advances have been discovered or created as a result of the chimpanzee studies. With the possible exception of Jerom, chimpanzees do not develop AIDS; the virus acts very differently in the chimpanzee immune system than in the human. If you can’t care about the chimpanzees, consider the money wasted on them – money that could be spent actually helping humans. Millions of dollars every year are spent on their upkeep alone, not to mention the wasted research dollars, wasted time, and wasted energy.

Don’t just take my word for it. Groups of medical doctors around the world have banded together to protest not the inhumane conditions of laboratory life, but the faulty scientific premises underlying biomedical research. Not just the chimpanzee work, but studies on tens of thousands of monkeys, dogs, rabbits and other nonhumans. You should be concerned – every one of these individuals suffers for your medical needs, and is directly effected by the products you consume. Your funding supports a system that is cumbersome and archaic, and produces negligible results at best. Advances in technology combined with epidemiological human studies have been shown to produce far better and more applicable results for humans.

Take this economic and medical concern, and add to it the ethical dimensions of what I’m telling you. Two hundred AIDS chimpanzees languish in small wet biocontainment cells around the US.  Nearly 1000 more chimpanzees used to study gout, hepatitis, malaria, respiratory synctial virus and other human conditions may have a bit more space, and possibly a chance to smell fresh air, but live similarly deprived lives in laboratories. Every one of them has a face, a name, a personality. Every one has been enslaved because humans decided that this injustice is justified. I’m trying to impress upon you that they are people – not humans, but people – and we are doing ourselves a grave disservice by treating other people in this inhumane manner.

The CHIMP (Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection) Act, which was enacted last year to provide alternatives to laboratory housing, may improve the lives of some of these individuals in the coming years by removing them from the laboratories and giving them larger areas with larger social groups. But the CHIMP Act is not enough – in order to remedy the wrongs, research on chimpanzees must stop, and reproduction must be halted. The recent deaths of Pablo and Annie Chimpanzees, beloved residents of Canada’s Fauna Foundation (and former inmates of New York’s defunct Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery In Primates), prove that it’s not enough to get them out. Pablo and Annie were not old individuals, yet four years of unconditional love and respect in sanctuary were no match for their rigorous lives in research. Most striking about their necropsies were the massive adhesions tying their organs together, caused by years of being darted, the preferred laboratory method of sedating chimpanzees. No amount of love, space or choice could have undone that trauma.

Giving chimpanzees larger cells with access to the outdoors, social groups, food choices, and alternatives to darting are not what they deserve: they deserve respect – they deserve to not live in service to humans. Their lives, although research claims them, belong to nobody but themselves.

There were too many research-related deaths this year:

∙  Manual Chimpanzee, Yerkes inmate, HIV+, Jerom’s sometime-friend died of unknown causes on April 17, 2001, age  22

∙  Sonia Chimpanzee, Yerkes inmate, died of organ failure, in a small cage and without her family, June 5, 2001, age 42

∙  Sellers Chimpanzee, Yerkes inmate, died while on a gout study, of asphyxiation alone in a tiny cage, June 11, 2001, age 18

∙  Pablo Chimpanzee, Fauna Foundation resident, died of excess internal scar tissue and all-around poor health, October 6, 2001, age 31

∙  Annie Chimpanzee, Fauna Foundation resident and matriarch, died of gangrene in her intestine, January 10, 2002, age 42

∙  Koen Chimpanzee, BPRC (Dutch laboratory) inmate, HIV+, died of unknown causes at age 28

These are just the individuals with human friends who cared enough to tell their stories. Without doubt there are many others. In memory of all of them, and with grief for the two babies who were recently taken from their mothers at the Coulston Foundation to be sold into the entertainment industry so that we may laugh at television commercials, and on behalf of the remaining AIDS Project chimpanzees at Yerkes – Buster, Nathan, Arctica, Joye, Betsie, Jonah, Marc, Roberta, Tika and Hallie – I ask you to remember them, and remember Jerom.

Please write to Yerkes’ Director Stuart Zola: 954 Gatewood Road, Atlanta, GA  30322;  404.727.7844;

Tell him you care, and that you’d like an explanation for the treatment of these individuals.

Rachel Weiss