You may find it strange to learn that I still frequently think about Jerom, even though he died 15 years. I suppose I’ve never shaken the feeling that this chimpanzee desperately needed my help, but in the end I let him down – I let him die and, in the end, even advocated for his death. He was not quite 14 years old and the laboratory had experimentally infected him with so many different strains of HIV that he became the first non-human to develop full-blown AIDS. In the months that I cared for him, tried to ease his pain and fear, and grew to love him, I couldn’t help but compare what he was going through to humans I’d known with the disease. Like them, I watched his body waste away as he endured endless bouts of diarrhea; he cried when he was in pain; he lashed out at me in anger when he was lonely and scared. But I was unable to offer much comfort to Jerom, and because researchers were only interested in his mutating virus, I was unsuccessful in my attempts to convince them to treat his disease. Knowing there was no other recourse for him, I asked the researchers to end his life rather than prolong his suffering. I said goodbye to Jerom on February 13, 1996.
Jerom and I were thrown together in a most unnatural way; biomedical research brought his kind out of the green forests of Africa, separated families, and deposited these individuals in the gray concrete and steel laboratories of the United States. Jerom and I should never have met, just as other laboratory caretakers across the country should never have known the approximately one thousand chimpanzees still held captive in laboratories here. Thankfully, many former laboratory subjects are now living in sanctuaries which do their best to provide a semblance of the autonomous lives wild chimpanzees know. But many more remain in the laboratories; some used in active protocols and others simply ‘warehoused’ until some research use is found for their bodies.
The United States and Gabon remain the only countries that still hold and use captive chimpanzees for research. While the federal government, which supports most of the research still conducted on chimpanzees, still finds a need for chimpanzees, there are indications that the tide may finally be turning. In the last year, the Great Ape Protection Act gained over 160 supporters in the US Senate; it is expected to be reintroduced this year. And when the National Institutes of Health threatened to move over 180 chimpanzees from the Alamogordo Primate Facility, where they had not been used in research for decades, to the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, where they most likely would have been used, tens of thousands of people across the country, including New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson advocated on their behalf. The chimpanzees were given a reprieve while the National Academies of Science conducts a review of the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research. The declining use of chimpanzees over the last decade can be attributed to the recognition that their use is expensive and fraught with ethical complications.
Nothing can be done to right the wrongs done to Jerom and the countless others like him who suffered and died to further the cause of research on human diseases, but we can choose to take a new path now. It feels like it’s finally time to start feeling hopeful that we’ll see an end to research on chimpanzees soon.