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Chimpanzees in Laboratories

In their natural homes in the wild, chimpanzees—humans’ closest living genetic relatives, who are more like us than they are like gorillas—are never separated from their families and troops. Profoundly social beings, they spend every day together exploring, building and using tools to solve problems, foraging, playing, grooming each other, and making soft nests for sleeping each night. They care deeply for their families and forge lifelong friendships. Chimpanzee mothers are loving and protective, nursing their infants and sharing their nests with them for four to six years. They have excellent memories and share cultural traditions with their children and peers. They empathize with one another and console their friends when they are upset. They help others, even at a personal cost to themselves. They grieve when their loved ones pass away. They laugh when they’re enjoying themselves and grimace when they’re afraid.

Sadly, in the early 1920s, experimenters in the U.S. began purchasing baby chimpanzees who had been kidnapped from the forests of Central and West Africa. To capture baby chimpanzees, hunters would kill the mother chimpanzees and any other adult chimpanzees who tried to defend the babies. Often, whole families were killed just to obtain a few babies. The mortality rate among these babies during capture and transport was high. Those who made it to U.S. laboratories suffered terribly and died young. In 1923, the notorious American psychologist Robert Yerkes—who dreamed of creating the ideal chimpanzee “servant of science”—purchased a young bonobo and a chimpanzee he had hoped to study into maturity. Both died within a year. Undeterred by the carnage and suffering inherent in the chimpanzee trade, experimenters continued to fuel the practice. In the early 1950s, the U.S. Air Force secured the capture of 65 young chimpanzees from Africa for use in military flight experiments at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The descendents of these chimpanzees were used in infectious disease experiments and in high-velocity seat-belt tests.

While many people believe that this practice is a shameful relic of the past, it persists today in the U.S. With a 2010 ban on great ape experimentation passed in the European Union, the U.S. holds the dishonorable distinction of being the only nation in the world, other than Gabon, that continues to conduct invasive experiments on chimpanzees.

Chimpanzee Experimentation in the U.S. in the 21st Century

More than 900 chimpanzees still languish in laboratories in the United States, with as many as 80 percent of them simply warehoused because there is no longer a need to use them in experiments.

In these prisons, chimpanzees are very often caged alone and deprived of the freedom, autonomy, and meaningful social interaction that they need. There are no families, no companions, no grooming, and no nests. There are only cold, hard steel bars and concrete—and terror and loneliness that go on for so many years that most chimpanzees sink into depression, eventually losing their minds. As a result of having to endure the terror and pain of having their bodies routinely violated for experiments and the loneliness of their tiny steel and concrete prison cells, many chimpanzees bear lifelong emotional scars. Numerous studies have shown that even long after they have been retired from experimentation, many chimpanzees exhibit abnormal behavior indicative of depression and post-traumatic stress. They suffer from symptoms such as social withdrawal, anxiety, and loss of appetite. They pull out their own hair, bite themselves, and pace incessantly.

Most chimpanzees in U.S. laboratories have been given diseases, such as AIDS, hepatitis, cancer, infection with respiratory syncytial virus, malaria, and heart disease, intentionally—even though advances in technology make these procedures irrelevant and decades of experimentation show that chimpanzees’ bodies do not react in the same way to these diseases as humans’ do.

In 1995—after hundreds of chimpanzees were bred in laboratories in the 1980s and ’90s on the heels of the AIDS crisis—the National Institutes of Health (NIH) imposed a moratorium on the breeding of chimpanzees after it was discovered that chimpanzees don’t get sick from HIV infection and do not contract AIDS.

Four facilities funded by (NIH) continue to conduct experiments on chimpanzees. These facilities include the Southwest National Primate Research Center, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s New Iberia Research Center, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Experimenters at Yerkes subject chimpanzees to neuroimaging, cognitive and motor testing, and invasive endocrine status tests in long-term studies on aging. At Southwest, MD Anderson, and New Iberia, chimpanzees are subjected to multiple procedures, such as, among other things, liver biopsies and frequent “knockdowns,” in which they are traumatically shot with a tranquilizer dart gun. Recently at MD Anderson, chimpanzees were also used in an absurd experiment that attempted to determine whether salt intake increases blood pressure—something that has been well-established in humans for decades.

Chimpanzees are also imprisoned in commercial laboratories. Pharmaceutical giant Merck recently revealed studies in which chimpanzees chronically infected with hepatitis C virus were subjected to invasive liver biopsies and blood work. A contract testing laboratory called BIOQUAL (formerly known as SEMA) had been tormenting chimpanzees in NIH-funded experiments for hepatitis C, placing swarms of mosquitoes on chimpanzees to infect them with malaria, and other cruel studies. After learning that BIOQUAL was separating young chimpanzees from their mothers, locking them in individual cages, infecting them with norovirus—which causes diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain—and then subjecting them to months of painful biopsy procedures, PETA purchased stock in the company to urge it to phase out the use of chimpanzees and called on NIH to cut funding for the experiments. Just six months after PETA purchased the BIOQUAL stock, the company announced that it was ending all its chimpanzee experiments.

In 2011, a landmark report by the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine (IOM) that examined the scientific validity of experiments on chimpanzees concluded that “most current biomedical research use of chimpanzees is not necessary.” Worse, a 2013 NIH report confirmed that current experimentation on chimpanzees is unnecessary and that “research involving chimpanzees has rarely accelerated new discoveries or the advancement of human health for infectious diseases.”

Thankfully, an NIH committee has recommended that the agency cut funding for most federally supported experiments on chimpanzees and that “the majority of NIH-owned chimpanzees should be designated for retirement and transferred to the federal sanctuary system.”

While the IOM report and NIH’s response are steps in the right direction, we must continue to push for all chimpanzees to be freed. Please sign PETA’s petition asking Congress to retire all federally owned chimpanzees to sanctuaries.

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