jerom 2008

Twelve years ago today I said goodbye to Jerom, a 14 year-old chimpanzee held at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He was put on a gurney, covered in a white sheet, and taken away. That day, his life was ended and mine changed forever.

In the years before his death, Jerom lived in a dark, damp, windowless, cinderblock building with 12 other chimpanzees. They had all been used in biomedical research on HIV/AIDS. As an infant, Jerom had been experimentally infected with several strains of HIV, and eventually developed the first documented chimpanzee case of full-blown AIDS. When I began caring for him, six months before his death, he was scared, lonely, and wasting away. I loved him and his building-mates fiercely.

Jerom died long ago, but his story is timeless. The ordeal he suffered is little different from the suffering endured by hundreds of chimpanzees and tens of thousands of monkeys in research labs today. Used in HIV, Hepatitis, toxicology, and other human disease and pharmaceutical research, these individuals suffer lives of confinement and deprivation. Researchers claim that their use as models for human conditions is a worthy endeavor; opponents say the science will always be flawed and is of little value. Personally, I have come to believe that such research can only be of poor quality: good science and chimpanzee well-being are simply mutually exclusive. But the utility of the science is not relevant. Only the ethics – precursor to the science – is relevant.

The humans who use beings like Jerom for researching human disease had to decide that the lives of nonhumans are valuable only in relation to their benefit to humans. Jerom showed me that all lives have intrinsic value. He mattered to himself, therefore he mattered to the world.

Were he alive, I might have visited him in sanctuary at Chimp Haven, as I visited his building-mates this spring. Of the 13, only Tika, Joye, Arctica, Jonah, and Marc survived the rigors of years of confinement and research. For the first time in their lives these individuals have access to each other as well as new friends, the outdoors, and lives free from research. Arctica in particular stuck me with the change in her demeanor. When I knew her at Yerkes she was aggressive, intelligent, head-strong, venomous. She took pleasure in terrorizing lab staff, but saddened us with her abnormal, confinement-created behaviors. But when I saw her at Chimp Haven, she seemed thrilled to see me after so many years. And she looked wonderful: relaxed, peaceful, happy. Never could I have foreseen such a change. And recently, the best news: chimpanzees at Chimp Haven are no longer threatened with a potential return to research – a recent amendment to the Chimp Act has seen to that.

Jerom’s memory is always in the forefront of my mind. It reminds me to be humble and grateful, and to take nothing from any other being that I would not give of myself. On this day especially, remember Jerom and the thousands like him who died and will die for the unattainable human dream of a pain-free world. Remember that, in this thing called life, we’re all in it together.

Rachel Weiss