jerom 2013

When I was 25 years old I experienced the most profound episode of my life: I nursed a teenage chimpanzee as he died of AIDS. I was so affected by Jerom’s treatment at the hands of researchers that I wrote a memorial on the first anniversary of his death. It began —

On February 13, 1996 Jerom Chimpanzee died of AIDS at Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center.  He grew up with 12 other chimps in small cages and without sunlight.  He suffered throughout his battle with AIDS, and his death shed no new light on the disease or its cure.

At the time, the other 12 – Manual, Buster, Betsie, Joye, Arctica, Nathan, Sarah, Jonah, Mark, Roberta, Hallie, and Tika – were still living in squalor and social deprivation at Yerkes. Their home was a dank, dark dungeon. Most of them had been experimentally infected with the human immunodeficiency virus as children, and they knew no other life. They lived that way for another decade.

I left them there but I never forgot, and every year since I remembered Jerom and asked you to do the same. On that first anniversary, I implored that they simply be recognized, that they be acknowledged and appreciated for their unwilling service. I left the lab scared and alone, having just been witness and party to the barbarism of biomedical research. I didn’t know anybody else like me, and I didn’t know anybody who was aware of what was happening in the labs. I spoke out and told the stories of the chimpanzees and monkeys I cared for at Yerkes, and eventually joined with others who had similar stories to tell. We’ve come such a long way from where we were 17 years ago; our persistent voices have slowly but surely turned the tide of public sentiment. Today chimpanzees and their use in biomedical research are a topic of national conversation, the Federal government on the verge of slowing research on our closest relative to a trickle.

Recently, an National Institutes of Health (NIH) council recommended that most of the chimpanzees currently owned by the Federal government – over 450 individuals – be retired to sanctuary. I’ve tried to rejoice at the news, but my relief is tempered by the council’s further recommendation that a colony of 50 unlucky chimpanzees be retained for future research needs. Chimpanzees in the colony could be used for compelling invasive research projects; the council made recommendations on maintaining these chimps in “ethologically appropriate physical and social housing conditions” that would promote the full range of natural chimpanzee behaviors. According to some experts, no laboratory in the country currently meets the criteria recommended by the council. Although the NIH has to adopt these recommendations before they are implemented, it seems clear that the Federal government does not intend to get out of the chimp business.

Nevertheless, most currently-funded research projects should grind to a halt if the council’s recommendations are adopted. Hundreds of chimpanzees will be marked for placement in the Nation Chimpanzee Sanctuary System funded by NIH; Chimp Haven, however, is currently the only sanctuary in the system. Federal funding for the Louisiana facility has been capped, and now the question on the minds of advocates and sanctuary directors across the country is: where will the money come from?

Since 2006, Chimp Haven has been home to the five survivors of Jerom’s group – Joye, Arctica, Jonah, Mark, and Tika. Unlike Jerom and so many others, they made it to sanctuary and are enjoying a new life in the sun. But like Jerom, Tika, who was also experimentally infected with HIV, developed AIDS. Her deteriorating condition prompted Chimp Haven veterinarians to take an unusual step and enlisted the help of pharmaceutical companies to treat the disease with antiretroviral drugs. Chimp Haven reports that Tika is thriving. Again, what a contrast from 17 years ago! Then, the antiretroviral therapies were new and unproven; my pleas with laboratory veterinarians and researchers to treat Jerom were scoffed at. In sanctuary, where respect for the individual is paramount, Tika’s value is recognized and she is allowed to live.

The NIH recently decided to retire 110 chimpanzees from the New Iberia Research Center to Chimp Haven. Unfortunately, it will be up to us to do what the government will not – fund the retirement of these individuals and the 450 slated for sanctuary. Please give to Chimp Haven and help them bring the New Iberia chimps home, so they may have the same chance given to my friend Tika. See for more.

In memory of Jerom and the unknown chimpanzees who died in laboratory this year whose stories have yet to be told.

Rachel Weiss