Through a Glass, Darkly, and Out the Other Side

Now is the time for all good scientists to act

Posted Sep 29, 2010

Flo, scheduled for experimentation


Laboratory chimpanzees routinely experience hundreds of "knockdowns" (anesthetization by dart gun) and procedures that include liver punches, wedge and lymph node biopsies; and infection with HIV hepatitis NANB and C virus. They live in terror and pain. In addition to physical debilitation, laboratory inmates acquire a diversity of symptoms sufficient to fill the DSM: self-injury, seizure-like episodes, screaming, panic attacks, trance states, acute anxiety, depression, hyper-aggression, anorexia, dysphoria, and the list goes on. Given the unrelenting horror of their experiences, the most straightforward diagnosis is Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). [3]

Science is well beyond demonstrating human-chimpanzee mental and emotional comparability. [4] [5] Indeed, there is ample evidence that chimpanzee capacities exceed humanity in many ways [6] and the fact that they don't do to us what we do to them demonstrates their superior ethics. And yet, this widely accepted knowledge has yet to be implemented in policy and law. Responsibility for the disconnect between what we know and what we do does not lie with lawmakers alone. The science community at large is deafeningly silent and complicit. [7]

Honesty, Thomas Jefferson wrote, is the first chapter in the book of wisdom. As professionals dedicated to promoting mental wellbeing, psychologists are ethically compelled to take a page from Jefferson's book and that of Dr. John P. Gluck, former director of a primate lab and professor of University of New Mexico and Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University. [8]

Mid-career, Gluck saw through to reality and chose to act on this knowledge by dedicating his science and psychology to this truth. Here he reflects on the profound implications for American science and psyche if we continue using our closest relatives as sacrificial human surrogates and fail to match ethics with knowledge.The title of his compelling essay is, Chimpanzees, Research and Decisions:

It is ironic that on the same day that Dr. John VandeBerg, director of the Southwest National Primate Research Center, forcefully presented his case to the people of Alamogordo to move the chimpanzees from their protected Alamogordo Primate Facility (APF) environment back into research at the Southwest National Primate Research Center in San Antonio, the Parliament of the European Union voted to ban all biomedical research with great apes. [9] How could such well-meaning people, who share much in the way of culture and ethical tradition, come to such different conclusions? A review of the European debate, which is very similar to our own in its level of controversy, shows that this decision was grounded in the recognition that apart from a mentally competent researcher deciding to run a risky test on themselves, when science involves the generation of harms to sentient animals like chimpanzees, justification requires more than clear scientific goals but also a balancing of the harms within the context of potential achievements and broad central social and ethical values. Beyond this, the Parliament declared that if a dimension of medical progress requires the use of the great apes, that progress must await the development of non-ape alternatives. This was obviously a difficult conclusion to reach. However, the consensus among the Parliament was that the harms that would be produced in the Apes by holding them in laboratory environments and exposing them to the required experimental procedures were so extreme that their core ethical values could not allow them to sanction the work. In other words, they affirmed that there was a point where the ethics of sympathy and compassion for suffering in research animals takes precedence over even the need for medical progress. It is a statement that basic decency, from which all ethical principles arise, at times takes precedence over even our fears of disease and death.



The systems of ethical thought that we share with most of the world, whether religious or secular, call on morally serious people to be vigilant about whether our justifications for various actions are coherent or are being overwhelmed by personal fears and desires that limit appreciation of other crucial considerations. The structure of an ethical life in animal research requires a similar practice. As scientists we must be prepared to change course and sacrifice elements of our self-interest when we determine that pursuing our goals requires too much in the way of pain and suffering from the animals that we are able to acquire. Therefore, deliberation about the ethical grounds for the return to research of these chimpanzees requires that we try to honestly examine the nature of our motives and the burdens imposed by our decisions.

In the article, Dr VandeBerg expresses complete certainty that the costs to the chimps by virtue of laboratory captivity, those that were seen as ethically objectionable by the European Parliament, are sufficiently remediated by providing the chimps with group living, air conditioning, superior medical care, and TV sets. Certainly the housing that he describes is far better than what I observed when I first visited the colony in 1973. Then, the animals lived a cramped and isolated existence in facilities that resembled a medieval prison. Even given these improvements, perhaps he should question himself further about whether he really knows that the lab comforts he describes are so "ideal." After all, isn't it true that our knowledge of who the great apes are as individuals and what matters to them is still in its infancy? What we do know about them so far is that it is a lot like looking in the mirror. When left to their wild lives chimpanzees live in groups with shifting membership, they form political power alliances, have sex, fight, and raise offspring. They make tools for termite fishing, honey gathering, and cracking nuts. They travel and explore, accessing seasonal fruits, seeds and medicinal plants; and they guard the boundaries of their territory. At night they choose camp sites and build nests to suit their individual preferences. And of course, they deal as best they can with disability and death; a full cycle of life. It is obvious that only disconnected fragments of this kind of life are possible, even with friends and a color TV in the cage. Is it not also possible that because of their inability to communicate with us in detail through a shared language that there are layers of pain and distress that remain hidden and unknown to us? Estimating the extent of harms and pleasure in another self-governed being is a perilous activity and requires humility.

Dr. VandeBerg asserts that his concern for suffering humans and animals is the driving force of his research resolve. I do not question his motives, in fact I respect them. However, given even the harms to the chimps that we know about, ought not researchers like Dr. VandeBerg also ask themselves whether their desires for prominence, promotion and fortune also play a part? Might these factors be more powerful than they would prefer to acknowledge? After all, researchers are human and are subject to the distortions created by raw desire and ego like all mortals. He also gives the impression that if the chimps cannot be returned, research on important diseases will stop. I think that he is underestimating the ingenuity of scientists to find alternative non-animal routes to discovery. Could this experimental focus on Chimps possibly be at all influenced by the fact that he is the director of National Primate Research Center? I know that when I was a Director of a primate laboratory my research ideas were shaped by that fact alone. I needed to constantly justify the importance of my lab, so that when I considered a research project, the use of primates always had priority.



To his credit, Dr. VandeBerg expresses the hope that research on the chimpanzees will result in vaccines that will serve as cures for diseases that plague wild ape populations as well as humans. He does not mention, however, that many of these shared illnesses - polio, measles, respiratory infections - were initially spread to apes thanks to local human, tourist, and researcher contact. He also uses this wedge to justify chimp studies of HIV by asserting that there is evidence of a chimp AIDS "epidemic" in Africa. Beyond a troubling report in 2009 that 17 chimpanzees infected with a monkey virus that was related to a virus that causes AIDS in humans seemed to have shorter lives and sicker offspring, I cannot find any evidence of the "AIDS epidemic" to which he refers. Perhaps he meant to reference the true epidemic of the Ebola virus that has killed one third of the African gorilla population along with thousands of chimpanzees in recent years. He did not mention plans to offer help in this case.

Indeed, those of us who reject the transfer plan must also reflect on our motives. Are we failing to appreciate the extent of the medical need? Are we being deluded by a desire to create a fantasy world where the hard realities of animal life do not exist? Has the level of our skepticism grown into a paranoia that filters out the existence of honest and caring researchers and underestimates the ability of animals is adjust and create a decent life for themselves in the lab?

We all have a lot of soul searching to do. In the meantime, let us leave the chimps where they are, protected from all of us. It is the only decent thing to do.





To put your knowledge into action, contact:

Dr. Francis Collins, Director, NIH
National Institutes of Health (NIH)
9000 Rockville Pike
Bethesda, MD 20892


[1] Chimps fate ignites debate. Nature 467, 507-508 (2010). Retrieved September 27, 2010 from

[2] A listing of 245 chimpanzees held at APF -- separated by decade of birth. The current population is 215 (190 on site and 25 at New Iberia), according to data provided by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in April 2010. Project R & R: Releases and Restitution for Chimpanzees in U.S. Laboratories. Retrieved September 27, 2010 from

[3] Bradshaw, G.A., T. Capaldo, G. Grow, & L. Lindner. 2008. Building an inner sanctuary: trauma-induced symptoms in non-human great apes. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation. 9(1), 9-34.

[4] Bradshaw, G.A., and R. M. Sapolsky. 2006. Mirror, mirror. American Scientist, 94(6), 487-489.

[5] Bradshaw, G.A. T. Capaldo, G. Grow, & L. Lindner. 2009. Developmental context effects on bicultural Post-Trauma self repair in Chimpanzees. Developmental Psychology, 45, 1376-1388.

[6] Young Chimps Top Adult Humans In Numerical Memory
ScienceDaily. December 9, 2007. Retrieved September 27, 2010 from

[7] Bradshaw, G.A. 2009. The Scientist's Bark, Huffington Post. October 15, 2009. Retrieved September 27, 2010 from

[8] John P. Gluck, Ph.D. Faculty member, The Kerulos Center, Emeritus Professor of Psychology, University of New Mexico, and faculty member, Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University. Email: jgluck(a)

[9] Research facility director says cost is worth price in chimpanzee test arena. Alamogordo Daily News, September 7, 2010.

Photo Credits: Photo 1, "Flo," ©2010, New England Anti-Vivisection Society. Photo 2, "Jeannie," ©2010 Fauna Foundation. Photo 3, “Rachel,” ©2010 Fauna Foundation.