During the last weekend of March, I attended a party hosted by Animal Protection of New Mexico (APNM) celebrating the freedom of chimpanzees in US laboratories. Grassroots organizers, scientists, health professionals, lawyers, lawmakers like former Governor Bill Richardson, and many others also joined to celebrate a virtual end to chimpanzee experiments.
For almost 100 years – since the 1920s – chimpanzees have been used in the biomedical research industry in the US, the last industrialized country to experiment on our next of kin. Many of these chimpanzees were orphaned when their mothers were killed, so they could be trafficked to the US as infants. Once in the US, many of these sensitive beings were used in space program decompression experiments, and subjected to water, food, sensory and sleep deprivation, illicit drugs, toxins, and deadly viruses.
In 2001, a group of about 200 chimpanzees who survived these experiments was placed in a colony in Alamogordo, New Mexico, where they were left unharmed for a decade. But almost 10 years later, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced a decision to move the Alamogordo chimpanzees to a private San Antonio, Texas research facility, where the chimpanzees – many of them elderly and sick – would be used again in invasive experiments.
The public responded with outrage. Public officials and scientists joined ranks with activists and a growing number of members of the public opposing chimpanzee experimentation.
With the support of colleagues, I arranged and moderated conferences funded by the National Science Foundation and Arcus Foundation, questioning the ethics of using nonhuman animals in research. Together, with APNM, Governor Richardson, and others, we held a press conference in 2010 highlighting the plight of chimpanzees in the US.
My colleagues and I met with members of Congress and their staff and explained the ethical and scientific problems with chimpanzee experiments. I told lawmakers and anyone else who would listen about my study showing chimpanzees who had lived in laboratories displayed signs of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, and other mental disorders.
One of the chimpanzees I told lawmakers about is Negra – a 40-something-year-old chimpanzee who suffered from PTSD and depression until she found a new home at Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest outside Seattle, Washington. Sometime around 1973, when Negra was only an infant, she was taken from her own mother in the African bush. After she was captured, she was shipped as cargo to the US and forced into a life of imprisonment, exhibition, experimentation, and tattooed with the letter-number combination “CA0041.” Over the course of her life, Negra was continually injected with diseases and forced to undergo repeated biopsies. She was repeatedly impregnated. When she gave birth, every one of her babies was taken from her and forced into a life similar to her own.
The public pressure worked. Following a request by Senators Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall from New Mexico and Senator Tom Harkin from Iowa, and a similar request from Governor Richardson, NIH commissioned a report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to produce an analysis of the scientific necessity of chimpanzee research.
On December 15, 2011, a final report was issued by the IOM’s Committee on the Use of Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research. The Committee’s deliberations were not without drama. Several original members of the Committee were removed, due to perceived conflicts of interest. The Committee was asked not to consider ethical matters, but it decided that was an impossible request from NIH. At times, the Committee speculated about whether guidelines for chimpanzee research should resemble those for human prisoners, who receive enhanced research protections under US law.
In the end, the Committee concluded that chimpanzees were largely unnecessary for research, and it recommended uncommonly demanding guidelines for federally funded research involving animals. The report was accepted as federal policy within two hours of its public release and triggered a phase-out of federally funded chimpanzee experiments. Since then, the Fish and Wildlife Service has issued a change in policy that further restricts public and private use of chimpanzees – in the biomedical industry, the entertainment industry, and as pets in people’s homes.
There is no doubt that all of these policy changes are measures of progress.
But many chimpanzees are still waiting for sanctuary. They are waiting for the reprieve chimpanzees like Negra received.
And none of these policy changes address a fundamental problem: Chimpanzees – and other nonhuman animals – are still considered something not someone. Nor do these changes in policy answer the question: “Does a chimpanzee, or another animal, have a right to be free from confinement, torture, and similar trespasses?”
The Nonhuman Rights Project, led by attorney Steven Wise, has set out to address this question – to change the law to recognize that chimpanzees and other animals have a legal right to these basic freedoms. In 2013, Steve brought the first of several full-fledged lawsuits for chimpanzee plaintiffs to courts in New York, and he is already preparing for the next trials.
Like many of us, Steve aims to see a day when animals are no longer invisible to the law.
After all, shouldn’t we be able to see and stop the suffering that is right in front of us?