On February 13, 1996, when Jerom was euthanized I promised that I would leave my job at the Yerkes Primate Research Center and tell his story until chimpanzees were no longer used in biomedical research. I never imagined that I would still be doing that 16 years later. I naively thought that once policy-makers and the taxpaying public learned the truth about what goes on behind closed laboratory doors, the barbaric practice of using our closest relative as a furry test-tube would end. But here were are in the 21st century, still arguing about whether it’s ethical to infect other sentient beings with viruses that cause illness in humans.
For months, in 1995 and 1996, Jerom was the singular focus of my life – I lived for him as the HIV with which he was experimentally infected as an infant proliferated in his body and he began to develop AIDS. He didn’t know that it was supposedly for a greater (human) good – he only knew the pain of illness and the suffering of social deprivation. When researchers finally completed the slow process of killing him just before his 14th birthday, they announced that they had learned from him that HIV causes AIDS – a fact that was not in dispute.
To this day, my feelings about Jerom’s final days are mixed. Death freed him but it didn’t free me. I walked away from Yerkes and from hundreds of other chimpanzees and thousands of monkeys, each living their own version of hell. I continue to tell their stories because if I didn’t, I think the guilt would eat me alive. I am not alone. Across the country, laboratory workers feel the guilt of participating in research protocols that cause pain and distress, and feel powerless to stop them. Many stay because they know that they can bring some small amount of solace to the animals in their care. Many cope with the sorrow of biomedical research by self-medicating or succumbing to depression. While the goal of biomedical research is to cure human suffering, the unforgiving nature of the work leaves a wake of misery for all involved.
Researchers defend their work by insisting that laboratory animals are treated humanely. I beg to differ. Humane treatment is marked by compassion and sympathy, an awareness of distress and a desire to alleviate it. Laboratories are designed for the specific purpose of keeping nonhuman research subjects safely contained and easily accessible for medical experimentation. Many chimpanzees are housed in small enclosures, in social groups which do not mimic their natural culture; chimpanzees used in specific studies are usually taken from those groups and housed in tiny stainless steel cages in windowless rooms. Truly humane treatment of chimpanzees and monkeys would jeopardize the research mission.
And what is the research mission? We know it’s not about curing little Suzy’s cancer by sacrificing a few chimpanzees, monkeys, and bunny rabbits – even scientists who support animal-based research acknowledge that they cannot quantify its benefit to humans. One study published in the British Medical Journal found little evidence to support claims that animal-based research translates into treatments for human diseases:
Few methods exist for evaluating the clinical relevance or importance of basic animal research, and so its clinical (as distinct from scientific) contribution remains uncertain. Anecdotal evidence or unsupported claims are often used as justification – for example, statements that the need for animal research is “self evident” or that “Animal experimentation is a valuable research method which has proved itself over time.” Such statements are an inadequate form of evidence for such a controversial area of research. (Pound 2004)
What’s more, researchers acknowledge that biomedical research studies are, in general, so poorly-designed and badly-reported that they are of limited practical use to other researchers. According to a review of studies published in leading scientific journals, “poor replication of even high-quality animal studies should be expected by those who conduct clinical research.” (Hackam 2006) A review of epidemiology research found that “[m]any animal studies are methodologically weak, and the animal literature is not systematically reviewed and synthesized … substantial improvement is needed in how it is conducted and synthesized to improve the predictability of animal studies for the human condition.” (Bracken 2009)
Which begs the question: if even researchers know that animal-based science isn’t providing cures for human diseases as they claim, why are they still doing it and why are we still footing the bill? Because its a highly profitable industry and they know how to scare us by playing on our fears that if they don’t use these chimpanzees, monkeys, and bunnies, there is no hope for curing little Suzy. It makes me wonder if we couldn’t have ‘cured’ communicable viruses like hepatitis C and HIV long ago by funneling money spent on many years of chimpanzee studies into efforts to prevent transmission of viruses which aren’t remotely as readily-transmissible as the common cold. Researchers were wrong about chimpanzees being the answer to the AIDS epidemic (which is why we have so many chimpanzees in this country today), and they may very well be wrong about chimps being the key to curing other human diseases as well.
A recent Institute of Medicine (IOM) survey of chimpanzees research assessed the necessity of the species for cures to human diseases. While the report concluded that “most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary,” IOM did not call for an outright ban, claiming the chimpanzees may be necessary in the future. In response, the National Institutes of Health in the US Department of Health and Human services has agreed to limitations on new chimpanzees studies but believes it’s necessary to keep some individuals warehoused in the event some future emergency requires their use.
Enough is enough. Like it or not (I know that many would prefer not to waste precious energy worrying about chimpanzees when humans are suffering), chimpanzees held in research labs and owned or funded by the United States government are our responsibility. The research is conducted on our behalf, therefore we need to speak out and let the government know we’re not interested. Please call or write your representative and support the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act of 2011 (HR 1513), which would prohibit the conduct of invasive research on chimpanzees. Former and current animal laboratory workers, please join the Laboratory Primate Advocacy Group on facebook, where you’ll find community and a place to tell your stories.
Please remember Jerom and so many others like him who didn’t consent, and Mason who was released from the lab to climb trees in sanctuary only succumb to heart disease at the young age of 28, yet another victim to the injustice of research life.
Bracken M. Why are so many epidemiology associations inflated or wrong? Does poorly conducted animal research suggest implausible hypotheses? 19 Annals of Epidemiology 220-224 (March 2009).
Hackam D. Translation of research evidence from animals to humans. 296 JAMA 1731-1732 (2006).
Institute of Medicine and National Research Council, Committee on the Use of Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research. Chimpanzees in biomedical and behavioral research. National Academies Press (2011).
Pound P, Ebrahim S, Sandercock P, Bracken M, Roberts I, and Reviewing Animal Trials Systematically (RATS) Group. Where is the evidence that animal research benefits humans? 328 BMJ 514-517 (February 28, 2004).
Vastag B. NIH temporarily bans new chimpanzee research. Washington Post. December 15, 2011.