Fourteen years ago today, a chimpanzee named Jerom died at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia. He was nearly 14 years old and had been infected with three different strains of HIV during experiments conducted over the course of his young life. I cared for him as he grew ill, in a dungeon-like building surrounded by twelve other chimps. The building itself was cold and wet, made of concrete and steel, and was not a place for a chimpanzee to grow up to learn to live as a chimpanzee. Jerom’s life was characterized by stress, fear, sadness, loneliness, and pain. Researchers infected other chimps with the virus that sickened Jerom; they ended his life and eventually, other infected chimpanzees died. I cannot say they did or did not die of AIDS, but I know that biomedical research and the rigors of laboratory life caused their deaths.
While HIV research using chimpanzee subjects is waning and fewer federal dollars fund chimp-based studies, these individuals continue to be used to learn about human diseases, including hepatitis C and malaria. The chimpanzees used for those projects suffer as Jerom did – ripped from their companions and subjected to terrifying and painful medical procedures while confined to sterile and restrictive living conditions. Chimpanzees not used for active studies are also subjected to the same prison-like conditions. Laboratories were not built to encourage the robust and dynamic chimpanzee culture seen in wild populations; they were built to manage research subjects and allow researchers easy access to their bodies.
The federal law meant to protect laboratory animals, the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), enacted in 1966, does very little to enhance their lives. For a striking demonstration of the slow evolution of chimpanzee care under the AWA, watch Frederick Wiseman’s 1974 documentary Primate, filmed at Yerkes, read my description of laboratory life during my time at that facility from 1994 to 1996, and then watch footage from the New Iberia Research Center recently collected by HSUS. While the law has resulted in some small improvements to laboratory life over the course of these 4 decades, really, very little has changed. The AWA does nothing to eliminate the confinement, boredom, stress, and pain of biomedical research, and it certainly does nothing to prevent or inhibit invasive biomedical research.
Why do chimpanzees matter? They matter because they are individuals – complex beings with spirit and personalities all their own, just like your sister, your favorite teacher, your best friend. And they matter because they are a symbol of how we, as Americans, treat other species. And because they are an example of wasteful government spending – we now know that invasive research on chimpanzees has yielded very little benefit for humans, and has possibly slowed the development of alternatives to chimpanzee subjects.
The passage of the Great Ape Protection Act (HR 1326) will prohibit invasive research on chimpanzees and other apes and require their lifetime care in sanctuary. GAPA currently has the support of 142 co-sponsors in the US House of Representatives but is far from being enacted. Please take a moment to contact your representative and ask him or her to support this vital piece of legislation. Visit https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/111/hr1326 to learn more about GAPA and how to contact your representative.
Fourteen years after his death, I still think of Jerom every day. He opened my mind to the idea that we humans have a serious responsibility to treat other species with respect – something Jerom saw so little of in his life. It’s time to end the barbaric practice of chimpanzee research.
As always, for Jerom, and for Carole Noon who dedicated her life to removing the bars from the lives of hundreds of former research chimps, and for Tom who, after so many decades in cages, got to climb a tree,