jerom 2014

For nearly 20 years I’ve been publicly mourning a chimpanzee named Jerom, because the circumstances of his death still haunt me and because others like him are still being used in similar ways and for similar purposes. Born in an Atlanta laboratory, experimentally infected with HIV as an infant, and put to death by researchers in his teens, Jerom has long been a symbol to me of human arrogance. He was an innocent. He could have been born in a green forest and taught by his mother to build night nests and search for the best figs and by male companions to hunt. But instead he lived his entire, short life in the cold steel and concrete of a laboratory, subject to endless biopsies and blood draws. He was offered no choices regarding how he wanted to live his life, and was cowed into submission by scientists with dart guns. He was a unique individual, a teenage boy who was shy, distrusting, impatient, but with a sly and quirky sense of humor. He was still a kid who wanted to be comforted but who had been trying to earn his place among older males when illness felled him. He developed AIDS, wasn’t offered any treatment for his condition while researchers studied his blood, and he died on February 13, 1996.

Jerom contributed very little to the AIDS research for which he was bred. Those who studied his rapidly-multiplying virus did not care about him – he was a means to an end. That goal was to develop a good animal model for the study of AIDS, a human disease. To me, his caregiver, there was no end that could justify the suffering he endured – I saw him as a person with intrinsic value. Just as it wouldn’t have been ethical to sacrifice one human for the sake of all HIV-infected humans, I didn’t think it was ethical to use Jerom in that way. And to my surprise, the year after Jerom died, a panel of researchers decided that it was not ethical to infect more chimps with his virus.

Nevertheless, other types of AIDS research and studies of various types of human diseases continued, in Atlanta and in other labs across the country. So I started writing a yearly memorial to him. I was hurt and angry and I wanted his story to free the 12 other chimps who lived in the same dungeon-like conditions where Jerom spent his final days. They eventually made their way to sanctuary, where they were freed from constant fear and allowed to finally breathe fresh air, and relax. And  I wanted the world to know what was happening to chimpanzees like him – over two thousand of them at the time – in the name of science. I wanted his story to open peoples’ eyes to the cruelty of biomedical research. I wanted to make research on chimpanzees stop. And finally it is.

Last year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – which “owned” Jerom and funded the laboratory where he was born – announced that most biomedical research on chimpanzees would no longer be approved or funded by the Federal government. Many chimps like Jerom, housed in labs in Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, will no longer be used in experiments designed to study human diseases. Instead, they will be retired from their involuntary service.

Federally-supported biomedical research on chimpanzees is clearly grinding to a halt! I’ve waited two decades to write those words, but the victory isn’t complete. Not only does NIH plan to retain about 50 chimps for future research, but the government is showing little indication that these chimps will be sent to waiting sanctuaries – facilities specially designed give them the freedom and respect they never had in the laboratories. Instead, it’s beginning to appear that NIH intends to stop most of the research but warehouse the chimps in the labs, ostensibly for the remainder of their days. In other words, they may never be free from the facilities that were designed to facilitate their confinement, restraint, and medical manipulation.

In May, the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance (NAPSA) submitted a proposal to the NIH outlining placement options and solutions for the chimps slated for release from research. NAPSA member sanctuaries are professionally-operated and are dedicated to the retirement of over 500 current chimpanzee residents, a majority of whom are former biomedical research subjects. Many of the sanctuaries have room to expand, with NIH’s help. These facilities can provide the freedom to roam and to make decisions that are not possible in a laboratory setting, and at a lower cost. The government is done with them, and they should be given a chance to start new lives in peaceful homes that are designed just for them.

Let’s keep the momentum going. If the sanctuaries are to take in the nearly 400 Federally-owned chimps that are no longer needed for research, they will need to build, and that takes time. Write to NIH Director Francis Collins and ask him to negotiate with NAPSA to fund sanctuary expansion and to start doing that NOW (! Write to the heads of the four laboratories that hold privately-owned chimps – including Yerkes, where Jerom died – and ask them to join the Federal government in retiring these research subjects (! The time is now.

This is my last memorial to Jerom, it’s time for me to let him rest. I like to believe that his story contributed to the rising tide of voices that brought us to this amazing year, when the powers that be decided that biomedical research on chimpanzees is no longer tenable. With your help, we can now get them to sanctuary where they can live out their days in peace.

Rachel Weiss