ALDF Urges Federal Government to End Research on Captive Chimpanzees

Posted by ALDF Guest Bloggers, Neil Abramson, Daniel Saperstein, and Kelly Anne Targett, Proskauer Rose LLP on March 28, 2013

Chimps

The United States and the small African nation of Gabon are the only two countries in the world that continue to use chimpanzees as test subjects in behavioral and biomedical research.  Such testing has brought little in the way of scientific breakthrough, but has, instead, inflicted a host of horrors on our closest genetic relatives.  Tragically, many chimpanzees have served as research specimens for decades without relief, often confined to small cages with no access to other members of their species or the outdoors–conditions tantamount to physical, emotional, and psychological torture.  It is widely acknowledged that such terrible conditions irreparably harm these highly intelligent and social creatures.

Late in 2010, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) forecasted that a change in policy might be on the horizon.  After decades of scrutiny and pressure from animal rights groups, the general public and, increasingly, the international community, the NIH requisitioned a study from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to examine the use of chimpanzees in NIH-funded behavioral and biomedical research.  That report, issued one year later in December 2011, concluded that "most current biomedical use of chimpanzees is unnecessary" and suggested that future research on chimpanzees be limited and guided by the following three principles:

(1) the research must be necessary to advance public health;
(2) there is no other suitable research model available; and
(3) the chimpanzee research subjects be maintained in an ethological environment focused on meeting both their social and physical needs.

Following the IOM study, a Working Group was tasked with reviewing the IOM proposals and advising on their implementation.  The Working Group issued a report on January 22, 2013, which offered twenty-eight recommendations.  The NIH published this report as part of a "Request for Information" through which it sought public comment on the recommendations.

ALDF, together with pro bono legal counsel from the law firm of Proskauer Rose, once again welcomed the chance to defend captive chimpanzees from the agonies of behavioral and biomedical research.

Although long overdue, the Working Group’s recommendations are an important step forward in the fight for chimpanzee rights.  Importantly, the report recommended that "[t]he majority of NIH-owned chimpanzees should be designated for retirement and transferred to the federal sanctuary system."  The report also proposed dramatic improvements in the housing of research chimpanzees–by requiring them to cohabit in social groups of at least seven individuals and improving the size and layout of their living space, as well as requiring access to the outdoors and veterinary care.  These changes to policy, if implemented, would help to alleviate the suffering of chimpanzees used in research.

But they do not go far enough.

To demonstrate that NIH policy is out-of-step with international standards and still lags behind the rest of the world in its treatment of chimpanzees, our comments included a survey of the laws of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, which, particularly in recent years, have banned or otherwise restricted chimpanzee-based research.

Our comments also urged the NIH to embrace public opinion, as polls have shown that a majority of Americans favor banning the practice of experimenting on chimpanzees.  Moreover, we exhorted the NIH to follow the lead of other federal government agencies taking steps to provide greater protections for captive chimpanzees.  In particular, we highlighted the recent petition to the Fish & Wildlife Service to classify captive chimpanzees, like their wild counterparts, as endangered species under the Endangered Species Act.

Accordingly, our comments insisted that the NIH go beyond the Working Group recommendations and implement a ban on all future chimpanzee testing in any NIH-funded research.  With such a ban, not only would there be no need to retain at government expense the proposed colony of fifty research-ready chimpanzees, but such resources could be better invested in developing non-animal research models.  Indeed, it is our long-term goal that the NIH will forego the recommendation to explore alternative animal research models (such as genetically altered mice), and instead adopt more humane, ethical, and reliable research protocols.

Given recent trends, the NIH should seize this seminal moment in history and stop the suffering of research chimpanzees once and for all.  As the Working Group report conceded, "[i]n light of evidence suggesting that research involving chimpanzees has rarely accelerated new discoveries or the advancement of human health for infectious diseases," it is not logical, ethical, or humane to squander precious government funds to exacerbate the plight of our fellow primates.