Forgive Us Our Sins

Posted by Joyce Tischler, ALDF's Founder and General Counsel on May 21, 2012

The storyline of a science fiction film called Planet of the Apes involves a group of astronauts who crash land on a planet in the distant future. They become the prisoners of the planet’s dominant species: highly evolved apes, who use human beings as slaves. I didn’t much like that movie when it came out in 1968. What struck me was that the basic story was ass backwards and the real story has become one of the tragedies of science in the 20th century. For it is the human beings who kidnapped and enslaved the other apes (after all, humans are apes). Chimpanzees were torn from their families and native land, shipped to unnatural human-controlled facilities in far away countries, imprisoned for life in tiny metal cages and subjected to all manner of physical and psychological attack. That imprisonment and slavery continues in the U.S. as of this writing. It has not been the stuff of blockbuster Hollywood films or best-selling books. Largely, their plight and their suffering have gone unnoticed. As I write this, I know that some readers will assume that I am anti-science and anti-human. Nothing could be further from the truth. My angst is that researchers have assumed that there are no ethical implications involved in exploiting chimpanzees and other animals for any and all research experiments. And, the greater public has bought in. The ethical debate about the use of chimpanzees was lost long ago. No one is listening; they never were.

In 2011, the McClatchy Newspapers analyzed the medical records of chimpanzees in research labs and holding facilities in the U.S., finding a number of questionable deaths, signs of severe suffering and most of all, a terrible, depressing existence for those chimpanzees who are caught in the web of medical research and testing.

For example, those records tell the story of Lennie, a chimpanzee brought to the U.S. from Africa in 1962, who spent four decades as a “tool” of research. He was subjected to spinal taps, infected with HIV and hepatitis viruses, and forced to undergo countless blood draws and biopsies. Lennie spent much of his life living in isolation, which kills the spirit of social animals. In 2002, Lennie collapsed in his cage and died. And, the records tell of three chimpanzees who died from electrocution because of faulty wiring in the research facility. And, of the final days and hours of Rex, a 16 year old chimp who was dehydrated, vomiting frequently, unable to eat and in constant pain. He was found dead, with vomit in his mouth and windpipe.

Chimpanzees are not human, and for most of my brethren, that simplistic distinction resolves any ethical concern about their well-being. End of discussion. We use them; that’s the way it is; that’s the way it’s meant to be. This ignores the fact that chimpanzees are highly evolved and quite extraordinary beings. In the wild, they are members of complex societies and they live long lives. Yet, these highly intelligent beings are treated like pencils, pawns in a massive biomedical machine.

How I yearn for a deeper sense of compassion, a more encompassing embrace of our fellow creatures, and a move away from our tunnel-visioned, human centric focus. The intense suffering, both physical and psychological, that chimpanzees have endured at the hands of human beings is a terrible reminder of what happens when compassion is turned off. I hope that future generations look back in horror at the atrocities we have committed against chimpanzees. I pray that happens sooner, rather than later.

Interestingly, portents of change are cropping up. The European Union banned research on chimpanzees in 2010. Pharmaceutical giant, GlaxoSmithKline announced in 2008 that it would cease using chimpanzees, relying not on ethical arguments (of course), but, basing its decision on science: new techniques offer better, more reliable results. The United States and Gabon are the only nations still willing to conduct research on chimpanzees.

Yet even the U.S. is witnessing a chink in the old armor. In mid-December, 2011, the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine released the findings of a nine-month study commissioned by the National Institutes of Health. The study concluded that the use of chimpanzees is not necessary for most current biomedical research. It did not call for a complete ban on the use of chimpanzees, but noted a decreasing need for their use. Many people see this as the beginning of the end. My fingers are crossed; so are my toes. The scientists are discovering practical, scientific and financial reasons for ceasing medical research and testing on chimpanzees.

It is estimated that over 1,000 chimpanzees are still imprisoned in U.S. laboratories and facilities that take little heed of their needs or interests. None of these chimpanzees will ever return to the wild; they would be unable to survive. What is possible and should be pursued with all due haste, is a system of sanctuaries, so that these survivors can live out the remainder of their lives in peace and dignity.

If you agree that chimpanzees should be given the rights and protection they deserve, I urge you to support the Great Ape Protection and Cost savings Act, H.R. 1513/S. 810. Contact your legislators, as per ALDF’s action alert.

Ask your legislators to become a sponsor and support passage of this critically important bill that will phase out the use of all great apes in invasive medical research and release more than 500 “federally-owned” chimpanzees to sanctuaries.

And, please learn more about the plight of chimpanzees, both in the wild and in captivity, as well as what you can do to help them. Here are some valuable sources of information:
The Jane Goodall Institute
Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest
Project R&R

On a wall in my office is a framed poster of Jane Goodall holding a very young chimpanzee. They are both looking up at the sky and hooting, chimpanzee style. The look on Dr. Goodall’s face is one of deep affection and respect for the being she is privileged to be so near. But, it is the chimpanzee whose demeanor is most compelling. She is at peace, resting her hand on the shoulder of a human she can trust. I pray that the rest of us become worthy of such trust.

Photo of Negra courtesy of Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest.

3 thoughts on “Forgive Us Our Sins

  1. JoAnnne Gallop says:

    Just the very thought of this makes me cry, breaks my heart. Why do the research labs still need animals to experiment on? Can’t they cross reference using technology? Or is it just easier to torture a defenseless animal..?

  2. Barb Knight says:

    Oh dear, I don’t understand it. Monkees/Chimpanzees were not created by God for evil scientists to expirement on at will Chimpanzees are our nearest animal relative one which I absolutely love & adore with all my heart. I went to see the movie “Chimpanzee” and it was so awesome the way Freddy took care of Oscar. Surely, the abuse/killings of chimpanzees will end sooner than we think.

  3. Sarah Luick, ALDF Board Chair says:

    Very Well Said, Joyce. Your understandings of why the Animal Legal Defense Fund toils in the field of animal law to protect the lives and advance the interests of non-human animals, comes through in your discussion about these chimpanzees. Sometimes what works best for human and non-human great apes can be on common ground that both the research community and us advocates for the chimpanzees can support. When the research community has no strong imperative foundation to simply continue the horrific confinements and harms to these chimpanzees, they lose out in any fair balancing of interests test. If you continue not to be convinced, read about PTSD in confined chimpanzees, other documented harms, and why this invasive research has not helped in the scientific published research found at the website of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society that Joyce mentions.

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