Animal Emotions

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Chimpanzees Finally Getting Much Needed Break by the NIH

These magnificent great apes are finally getting more protection but not enough

Chimpanzees are fascinating nonhuman animals (animals). They're smart, highly emotional, and endangered in the wild. They also find themselves housed alone in small barren cages and abused in horrifically invasive research and often stockpiled and treated as if they're books on a shelf waiting to be used or beaten when they misbehave, as caught on video at the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana (see also). To quote Dr. John VandeBerg, Director of the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, "I think of the chimpanzees in the same way that I think of a library. There are many books in the library that will never be used this year or next year ... Many of them might never be used again. But we don't know which ones will be needed tomorrow, next year or the year after."

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Despite this perverse view of chimpanzees and egregious abuse, it looks like things are finally getting better for those who are owned - yes, owned as if they are mere objects - or used in research supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). 

The fate of captive chimpanzees has been debated for a long while (see also and and) and during the past few years more and more researchers and politicians have supported phasing them out of various research programs. For example, support for ending the use of chimpanzees in "traumatic and invasive research" has been favored by Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican representative from Maryland and a former physiologist at the Navy's School of Aviation Medicine. In an essay in the New York Times Representative Bartlett concluded, "Americans can no longer justify confining these magnificent and innocent animals to traumatic and invasive research and life imprisonment." As the world famous scientist Carl Sagan once asked, "How smart does a chimpanzee have to be before killing him constitutes murder? Indeed how smart would any animal have to be?"

Now, a report from an NIH council recommends "Almost all of the 451 chimpanzees owned or supported by the National Institutes of Health that are now at research facilities should be permanently retired from research and moved to sanctuaries, with planning for the move to start immediately ..." This recommendation does not constitute a ban on research. It calls for canceling six of nine current invasive projects and offers that a small colony of around 50 chimpanzees should be kept in case they're needed for future research. Fortunately, the research will have to be approved by an independent committee including the public. (More articles on this report can be found here.)

There still is time to comment on these recommendations and I urge everyone to do so. You can contact members of Congress and also write to the NIH. You can directly contact Dr. Francis Collins, the Director of the National Institutes of Health at 9000 Rockville Pike Bethesda, MD 20892; email: francis.collins@nih.gov; Telephone: 301-496-2433. 

Dr. Collins has accepted the recommendations of this latest report and has suspended new grants for biomedical research on chimpanzees. Kindly ask these people to terminate all research projects on chimpanzees once and for all. 

The teaser image can be seen here

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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