Tag Archives: Chimpanzee

Today’s Science live chat: Scientists discuss ethics of studying chimpanzees in captivity

In anticipation of NIH announcing a closely-watched decision on the potential retirement of hundreds of federally-funded chimpanzees, Science is hosting a live chat this afternoon at 3 p.m. EDT. The chat features several well-known scientists who will discuss some key issues relevant to the future of chimpanzee research, including:

“What, if any, research should continue with captive chimpanzees? Are there ethical ways to conduct biomedical studies on our closest relatives? And what do behavioral studies of captive chimps reveal that cannot be learned from studying chimps in the wild and vice versa?”

Scientists contributing to the discussion include:  Prof. William Hopkins, a psychologist who studies behavior and the neurological correlates of various aspects of cognition in chimpanzees. His research has focused mainly on language and communication, handedness and social behavior. He is based both at Yerkes National Primate Research Center and Georgia State University, both in Atlanta. Prof. Pascal Gagneux, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California at San Diego. His work includes field studies of chimpanzees in the Taï Forest, Côte d’Ivoire, as well as laboratory research that relies on biological materials from wild and captive chimpanzees. Prof. Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who has previously been active in advocating for ending much captive chimpanzee research. Hare’s research includes behavioral and cognitive studies of both chimpanzees and bonobos living in African sanctuaries.

Over the course of the past several years the topic of captive chimpanzee research has received extensive consideration by the scientific community, the public, press, and the federal agencies that fund their housing, care, and much of the chimpanzee behavioral and biomedical research. We have written previously about a range of issues that should inform consideration and decision-making about the future of these animals, including those that seem to have received far less public attention than deserved. Among them are understanding of the current housing and care of the animals, responsible plans for the animals’ long-term care, and the definition of ‘invasive’ research.  The topics posed in the live chat description capture many of the central issues, though we would suggest that it could also be framed as “Is it ethical not to study captive chimpanzees?”

Consideration of both the use of chimpanzees in research, as well as responsible plans for their optimal long-term housing and care, are complex issues and deserve serious, fact-based discussion.  We these look forward to hearing today’s discussion with Profs. Hopkins, Gagneux, and Hare and appreciate their willingness to contribute to an important public discussion.

Speaking of Research

Previous posts:

On the definition of invasive research, including video of voluntary, cooperative blood sampling:  http://speakingofresearch.com/2011/11/21/a-closer-look-at-great-ape-protection-act/

On the cost of retiring chimpanzees and federal legislation aimed at ending chimpanzee research:  http://speakingofresearch.com/2011/12/08/what-cost-savings-a-closer-look-at-the-great-ape-protection-and-cost-savings-act-of-2011/


Guest post by primatologist Dr. Joseph Erwin:  http://speakingofresearch.com/2011/10/13/guest-post-efforts-to-ban-chimpanzee-research-are-misguided/

On the IOM chimpanzee panel:  http://speakingofresearch.com/2011/08/12/facts-must-inform-discussion-of-future-of-chimpanzee-research/

Animal Rights Bill Under Consideration in the Senate

The Great Ape Bill, which would have significant impact on chimpanzee research in the US, is now under consideration in the US Senate.  Over the past year, the legislation has been widely discussed in terms of its aims to:

1) End invasive research with chimpanzees.

2) Move towards retirement of the US chimpanzee research population to sanctuaries.

3) Save costs associated with care of the US chimpanzee research population.

All of these goals have been presented widely in ways that have broad popular appeal.  Efforts to pass this bill have received tremendous energy and are the focus of a range of groups and individuals who have common interests in animal welfare. If it were to succeed, passage of this bill would undoubtedly be historic and significant. It would end invasive chimpanzee research in one of only two countries who currently conduct it within their borders.  Moreover, other countries could neither count the US as a fail-safe for the conduct of invasive ape research, nor could they contract such research in US laboratories.

It is for those reasons, along with consideration of its effects on both the chimpanzees who are its subject and the public who benefit from scientific research, that it is of crucial importance to have thorough understanding and discussion of the bill.  This is true in terms of the likelihood that it will actually result in the benefits that its supporters assume. It is also true in terms of the intended and unintended consequences it may have for animal welfare, science, research with other animals, and long-term costs to the public.

On close examination it is far from clear that the current draft of the legislation – which was proposed in November by Senator Maria Cantwell  – would accomplish the aims that are at the heart of arguments made by its supporters. In fact, one has already been shot down by recent Congressional Budget Office analysis demonstrating that S. 810, The Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act of 2012 would provide none of the cost-savings advertised in its title.

More importantly from an animal welfare perspective, the legislation and discussion surrounding it fail to offer for public consideration an effective plan to successfully provide the chimpanzee population with sustainable long-term care under conditions that meet federal sanctuary standards. Without this information it is impossible to determine whether the welfare of the majority of the population of chimpanzees would be best ensured and sustained over their lives.

Thus, discussion of the legislation appears to fall short on planning for all of the chimpanzees’ welfare, which is the presumed central focus of the effort. Furthermore, in absence of a comprehensive plan that would suggest feasible alternatives for the animals’ care and housing, an accurate cost calculation cannot be made.

The complexity of this issue should not be underestimated.  In fact, NIH has already convened an expert group to make recommendations about the chimpanzees’ long-term care, housing, and population size.  A report from the NIH Working Group on the Use of Chimpanzees in NIH-supported research assembled as a result of last year’s Institute of Medicine report is due early next year. One of their tasks is to consider how the “ethologically-relevant” care and housing recommended by the IOM report would be defined and implemented.  Among the issues that remain to be addressed are decision-making about whether key elements of facilities, care and housing for the chimpanzees should differ from the current standards in either research facilities or sanctuaries.

Whether there is sufficient capacity in current facilities or sanctuaries is at also a key issue, as was highlighted earlier this year when NIH announced that newly retired chimpanzees from New Iberia could not move directly to the only federally-funded sanctuary, Chimp Haven, because it did not currently have capacity for a larger number of animals.  As the NIH pointed out, no other sanctuary in the US meets the standards required for retirement of federally-owned chimpanzees.

“At a minimum, sanctuaries that care for NIH-owned chimpanzees must meet the “Standards of Care for Chimpanzees Held in the Federally Supported Sanctuary System”. These standards, which were developed to ensure the safety and welfare of the chimpanzees, include the requirement for the sanctuary to achieve accreditation by a nationally recognized animal program accrediting body, such as the AAALAC or the AZA. NIH is unaware of any sanctuary other than Chimp Haven that meets the standards specified by law or regulation.”

One solution to the housing question is to consider research facilities currently housing chimpanzees as appropriate venues for the animals’ retirement. This would eliminate the need to move the animals and the cost of extensive construction of new facilities.  This solution is controversial however, as was evident in the public response to NIH’s announcement several months ago that retired chimpanzees would be moved from one biomedical research facility to another. The controversy over that decision serves as an illustration of the need to include a much more comprehensive discussion of the range of options—including both their benefits and their costs—for any changes in the long-term care and housing of the US chimpanzee population.

Together all of these considerations raise a question about the central motive for the bill.  Specifically it raises the following questions:  is GAPCSA simply aimed at formalizing via legislation what is already occurring through other channels such as the IoM report on chimpanzee research and the resultant NIH working group tasked with recommendations on the future of chimpanzee research?  Or, is it the intent of GAPCSA’s supporters to capitalize on what is already a near-consensus change in the need and practice of invasive chimpanzee research in order to secure a victory and precedent for an animal rights agenda?

The latter conclusion is suggested by consideration of the little detail provided about contingencies for chimpanzees’ care, alongside the mismatch between the bill and the IoM report.

IOM coverIn a recent revision of the bill apparently aimed at alignment with the IoM report which we discussed earlier, the findings section of the Bill is based almost entirely on the report. Among the scientific findings, we read that while chimpanzees are not frequently used in research today,  “a new, emerging, or remerging disease, or disorder may present challenges to treatment, prevention, or control that defy non-chimpanzees models and available technologies and therefore may require the use of the chimpanzee.”

And yet, the central purpose of the bill has been that “No person shall conduct invasive research on an ape.” In other words, a complete ban on invasive research.

Clearly, there is no logic that can be invoked to support GAPCSA’s effective prohibition of all invasive research based on the IoM’s scientific findings. The assessment that chimpanzees may be required in the future argues exactly for the opposite position.  This is the reason the IoM panel decided not to recommend an outright ban.

It is worth noting that the most recently revised version of the bill allows for exceptions to invasive research, it is our opinion that, as written, the hurdles imposed would effectively imply a complete ban.


First, the bill requires that any invasive research be conducted “in an ethologically appropriate physical and social environment; or the great ape’s natural habitat.” Research that involves studying new emergent infectious diseases would be nearly impossible to carry out in such conditions.


Second, the bill never defines “ethologically appropiate,” which leaves a door for animal rights opponents of medical research to claim that any proposed laboratory conditions are unacceptable. Indeed, the Humane Society of the Unites States already says that “Chimpanzees are magnificent, intelligent, and social animals capable of a wide range of emotions. Their complex social and emotional needs simply cannot be met in a laboratory environment.”


Third, the bill requires HHS to find that forgoing the use of apes in proposed research “will significantly slow or prevent advancements” in the proposed area of research, which is scientifically impossible to determine.


Interestingly, the modified bill removed language from the original version which argued for the prohibition based on ethical considerations as well, highlighting the cognitive and emotional ability of apes and the alleged inability to keep these animals while meeting their physical, social and psychological needs.


Perhaps the language worried some legislators that saw the same could be said of other species.  Its removal should be no reason for comfort. If you want to understand where all this is heading all you have to do is read a recent article by HSUS’s Kathleen Conlee and Andrew Rowan, where they state their view that

“[...] full replacement of animals in harmful research is within our grasp. The goal will not be reached all at once, however, and phasing out invasive research on all nonhuman primates should be the priority.”

Today apes. Tomorrow all primates. Other species will follow. The Great Ape Bill is just the first step in HSUS’s vision of an end to all animal research by 2050.

It makes sense.  After all, the Bill under consideration does not appear to be about science as it contradicts the IoM recommendations; as explained above, it does not seem to be about animal welfare either; it is truly about animal rights.

As events related to chimpanzees in research in the US have played out over the past year, it has only become more apparent that greater attention to the details and consequences—intended and not—of decisions about the future of chimpanzee research is urgently needed.  Serious deliberation is needed not only to inform evaluation of this legislation, but also to guide decision-making to ensure that the relevant ethical issues are fully considered.

There is no question that chimpanzee research in the US has changed significantly over the past several decades.  Last year’s report from the Institute of Medicine panel convened by NIH in order to consider the future of chimpanzee research provided ample evidence of consensus in both the scientific community and others concerned with animals in research that continuing changes are appropriate and inevitable. At the same time, it is clear that there is little consensus that the GAPCSA legislation is the best way to move forward.

GAPCSA takes the unusual and unprecedented step of prohibiting an entire animal research model, something that should be of concern to all scientists.  As Judith Bond, President of FASEB, recognized “Even if you do not work with great apes, you should be concerned about this bill because it would end research deemed by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to be ethically sound and scientifically important and could pave the way for legislation to ban research with other species.”

Unless you are an animal rights proponent, the GAPCSA is not the way forward.

Speaking of Research

Previous SR posts on chimpanzee research and GAPCSA cover the wording of the act, the question of costs, a primatologist’s perspective, the Institute of Medicine’s report, and a recent response to a constituent’s letter.

Frans de Waal’s Ethical Arguments Need Clarification

In a recent perspective, Professor Frans de Waal argues that chimpanzees deserve “special moral status.”  The statement comes on the heels of a recent report by the Institute of Medicine who proposed strict criteria on the use of chimps on biomedical research.

According to de Waal there are compelling ethical reasons to ban all invasive work on chimps, but he argues that one should “not throw out the baby with the bathwater by also curtailing non-harmful behavioral research” as well.  He defines ethically permissible research in chimps as “the sort of research I would not mind doing on human volunteers.”

While Prof. de Waal ought to be applauded for sharing his views on the use of chimps in scientific research, I think he moves too fast through weak and vague ethical reasoning to reach his main conclusion.

Opponents of animal research, for example, are likely to point out his definition of ethically permissible research should read instead “the sort of research [one] would not mind doing on human volunteers who also agree to live in captivity in the same conditions as the chimps.” 

They will also point out that human subjects that volunteer in scientific research, whether invasive or behavioral, provide their informed consent.  Moreover, human subjects retain a right to withdraw their participation at any point in time, and they are never deprived from their liberties and freedom.  Opponents of research will further argue harm comes to these animals by the mere fact they are forced to live in captivity.

It is unclear how de Waal would defend his work from the stated position in his perspective. Perhaps the “special moral status” de Waal wants to grant to chimps and other great apes is not meant to be interpreted as including the same basic rights to liberty and freedom as those enjoyed by humans.  If so, he should state this clearly.  His position is vague and confusing because in the same perspective he seems to approve some countries granting great apes legal rights.

There are other problems that emerge from de Waal ill-articulated ethical position.  He states the basis for awarding great apes special moral status is based on their high cognitive skills, as well as their capacity to display empathy and pro-social behavior. At the same time he believes the same intrinsic properties are present in varying degrees in other species – there are many differences between chimps and monkeys in cognitive capacities, but we consider them mostly gradual differences.” Given such graded abilities it is not clear how de Waal would draw a line between those species that deserve such “special moral status” and those that do not.  Or if there are other morally relevant properties that he did not mention.

Finally, I think de Waal correctly points out that humans should not be allowed to blame nature to explain our history of violence, warfare, and male dominance.  The reason is that only humans are capable of reflecting on the question of how is that we should treat others, including non-human living beings.  Yes, we have a moral obligation to consider the interest of other living beings in our actions.  But, as Carl Cohen explained, we should not confuse our moral obligations to other living beings with them having basic rights. Rights entail obligations, but the reverse is not always true.

There is wide agreement (and I concur) that the interests of great apes deserve high moral consideration, more so than those of a mouse or a worm. But it is worth noting that such principle of graded moral status is already implicitly acknowledged in the NIH guidelines which require scientists to use the “lowest” possible species that can yield the information they seek.  In this regard, the IoM panel finding that there is only a minimal need to use chimps in scientific research is not a truly reflection of their inadequacy to model disease (chimps could certainly be used in many studies to answer good scientific questions), but of our existing recognition that they deserve high moral status and that they can only be used under the most  extreme circumstances.

Part 2: University of Toronto ends live primate research – Outsourcing Controversy

 Earlier this week we wrote about the University of Toronto’s public statements concerning the end of their on-site primate research. A number of broader questions were raised by considering similar cases and articles.  Among them, what does it mean for a university to claim that it does not engage in a particular type of research?  In the case of the University of Toronto, the same article announcing the end of their primate research indicated that Univesity of Toronto researchers will continue primate studies at other institutions. 

Although this seems like a small point that concerns only a single animal research program, it is illustrative of larger questions and issues that deserve more thoughtful consideration.  One is what it means to say that a researcher, institution, or nation does or does not conduct a particular type of research. It is not at all obvious, and thus is an easy thing to manipulate in public presentation. For example, ask the following questions:

  1. Does that mean only that they do not house animals and conduct studies, or do not conduct that work independently on their own campus or within their own borders?
  2. Or does it mean that they not only do not conduct the work, but also do not support the work in any way, with collaborative effort, resources, or their approval? 
  3. Or does it mean that they not only do not conduct the work, but also do not support the work and would refuse any benefit arising from the work?

It is not only the University of Toronto ending its housing of monkeys and instead relying on collaborative opportunities in the U.S.that raises these questions. The point is also well illustrated in considering whether Canada and other countries are, or are not, involved in biomedical research with chimpanzees. One of the frequently raised points used to argue against ape research is that biomedical research with chimpanzees is conducted in only two countries — the U.S. and Gabon.  But what does that mean? And is that really true?

In fact, a recent CTV news show highlighted the fact that studies for Canadians are performed at a U.S. chimpanzee research facility funded largely by a federal grant to maintain national research resources in the U.S.  The fact that Canadians are involved in chimpanzee research is not hidden in any way, but is easy to misconstrue.

In Canada, there’s no outright ban, but no one is actually doing it.

Instead, Canadians commission studies at research facilities like the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana, the largest facility of its type in the world. It’s home to nearly 7,000 primates, 360 of them chimpanzees.”

It is not only Canadians. Scientists from a number of other countries engage in behavioral and biomedical research collaboration involving chimpanzees housed in U.S. research institutions. Furthermore, when the Netherlands became the last European country to ban chimpanzee research almost a decade ago, it was acknowledged that because the opportunity for chimpanzee research remained in the U.S.everyone could be assured of continuation of the work without the cost, controversy, or responsibility of having to maintain the possibility within their own country.  A 2003 article highlights this point:

The end of European ape research, long sought by animal rights activists, was accelerated by a report published in 2001 by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences (KNAW). It concluded that high costs and decreasing scientific need had made chimp studies all but superfluous. In rare instances where ape research will be crucial to combat a human disease, the panel said, large colonies funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the U.S. would be better equipped.

However, even in parliament itself some hypocrisy was acknowledged. Because ‘if the occasion arises’, the government quoted the KNAW report, Dutch researchers would still be free to do experiments abroad. Observed House member Bas van der Vlies (SGP): ‘Since through a back door [the Netherlands will profit from [ape research elsewhere, I see no reason for us to start beating our chests like gorillas.’”

The point made by Bas van der Vlies is a good one and one especially relevant now as the U.S. weighs legislation to end invasive chimpanzee research.  It is also more broadly relevant because it underscores why the decision of single entity, institution or nation, to end a particular type of research must be viewed within the context of the range of alternative opportunities and avenues that will serve the overall goal.  In other words, the decision to ban an avenue of research means one thing if that choice will result in a true end to the work. The same decision is inherently less risky if it is cushioned by knowledge that another institution or another country is committed to maintaining that research avenue and shouldering the accompanying burdens.

It is also true that the decision to “end” a particular kind of work is often more reflective of different types of cost considerations.  For example, note increasing outsourcing of animal research to other countries with less developed regulatory structure and lower costs. Whether that is good for animal welfare, science, research institutions, and the public is a topic of discussion among scientists and is one that should be given more thoughtful public consideration. We believe the US public is better served by advocating for reasonable improvements in animal welfare while keeping important medical research at home. The adoption of unrealistic policies and regulations that dramatically increase the cost of the work, while not significantly impacting on the well-being of the animals, will help drive the research overseas, with negative consequences on the biomedical leadership of our country and uncertain consequences for the well-being of the animals.  

So how do we tell the difference between individuals, institutions, and countries genuinely committed on moral or ethical grounds to ending particular types of research, rather than in only displacing it to others?  One piece of evidence would be for those claiming that the work is either unnecessary or unethical to also make clear that they do not simply outsource the work to other institutions or countries. 

Another would be for them to decline any benefits from the work.  For example, although we are aware of no efforts underway to preclude citizens of countries that disallowed such work to benefit from the findings or any advances made through chimpanzee biomedical research, for example hepatitis C vaccines currently under development, it would seem that this would be an easy way for people to affirm their commitment to the global picture. (Whether it should be habitat countries or a world-wide body who provides consent on behalf of the wild apes for whom conservationists are arguing should benefit from vaccines developed from research in laboratory studies of nonhuman primates might be a separate issue.)

What is gained from considering this more complicated picture?  In the case of the recent University of Toronto press coverage, a reminder that it is disingenuous at best to solicit public approval by disavowing research that the institution has conducted, has benefited from, and will continue to be involved in — albeit with the majority of risk and cost assumed by other institutions. In the case of chimpanzee research, a reminder that as long as non-U.S. interests benefit from and participate in studies conducted in the U.S., it is not accurate to claim that it is only the U.S.that sanctioned and benefited from such work.  And that includes the apes in Africa who could benefit from the vaccines developed via laboratory research in theU.S. and elsewhere.

Finally, we would advise a critical eye towards any articles in which universities, pharmaceutical companies, or countries claim that they are not engaged in primate or other animal research.  Those who have simply chosen to do the same work elsewhere or via collaboration should be clear about their involvement. Similarly, those whose work depends on data, tissues, or animal models developed by others, or at other institutions, should acknowledge a responsibility and involvement in the live animal work as well. 

Allyson J. Bennett

What Cost Savings? A Closer Look at the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act of 2011

The status and future of chimpanzee research in the US are at the heart of much discussion lately in both scientific and public (also here and here) spheres.  A committee convened by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to consider the issue held a number of meetings and is expected to report its findings to the NIH by the end of this year. Legislation to end great ape research, also introduced in 2007 and 2009 (H.R. 1513: Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act of 2011;  S. 810: Great Ape  Protection and Cost Savings Act of 2011; GAPA), was again introduced last Spring. This is the fourth of a series of posts aimed at encouraging thoughtful and fact-based consideration of the full range of complex issues associated with chimpanzee research and both short- and long-term responsibility for their welfare, care and housing. Posts include:

08/12/11: Facts must inform discussion of future of chimpanzee research.

10/13/11: Joseph M. Erwin, PhD Efforts to ban chimpanzee research are misguided.

11/21/11: A closer look at the Great Ape Protection Act.

Previous posts and other discussions of chimpanzee research have focused on ethical questions, animal welfare, and ongoing evaluation of the role chimpanzees do play, or should play, in scientific research.  These are the most important issues to address in discussion of the future of great apes in the U.S. At the same time, this year’s version of the Great Ape Protection Act has included a new focus, with addition of the phrase “and Cost Savings.”  The new language and the calculations given as basis for its assertions have received relatively little careful broad discussion or evaluation.

According to cost analysis for the legislation compiled by the Humane Society of the United States, the majority of cost-savings from GAPA – 76% – would result from ending federal grants for projects involving chimpanzees.  Of the “nearly $30 million saved annually” over $22 million reflects funds committed to support research projects that involve chimpanzees and are funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

HSUS GAPA Cost Analysis

It appears that this number was arrived at by summing the cost of all NIH grants that involve chimpanzees, regardless of their topic or the types of activities in which the animals are engaged. Whether this number could reflect the total funds invested in what is commonly considered invasive research is not readily apparent. Some of these grants may involve noninvasive studies, others may be dedicated to studies that require as little as samples of DNA—something commonly done in human studies. It does appear that the underlying assumption for the cost analysis is a complete block on any NIH research grants that involve chimpanzees. (We welcome correction if this is not an assumption of the HSUS analysis or any cost analysis used to support the claims associated with GAPA.)

The remaining savings are projected from reduction in care costs if the animals were moved to sanctuaries.  Whether sanctuaries provide lower-cost care than research facilities is subject to some debate, in part because care costs vary across facilities. This is illustrated in the most recent data published by the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) October 31, 2011 “Costs for Maintaining Humane Care and Welfare of Chimpanzees:”

Based on the most recent awards and payments, NIH is spending an average of $35 per day per chimpanzee in research facilities; $67.00 per day per chimpanzee in the research reserve facility at Alamogordo Primate Facility (APF); and $47 per day per chimpanzee in the federal sanctuary facility operated by Chimp Haven. The average for research facilities becomes $44 per day if the research reserve facility at APF is included. See Table 1 for detailed figures.”

The reasons for variance in costs are complex. Among other things, they do not reflect differences in housing, clinical care, or health status of the animals (e.g., older animals or animals with chronic health problems may require more expensive treatment and care). But overall, the numbers reported by NCRR show a rough equivalence in care costs at the federal sanctuary and many research facilities.

Table 1 “Costs for Maintaining Humane Care and Welfare of Chimpanzees, October 31, 2011



# of Chimpanzees,
as of 10/31/11

NCRR cost*,

NCRR cost,





















Research Reserve


# of Chimpanzees,
as of 10/31/11

NCRR cost*,

NCRR cost,





Federal Sanctuary


# of Chimpanzees,
as of 10/31/11

NCRR cost*,

NCRR cost,





What is not shown by these numbers or by most of the discussion of GAPA are the number of other issues that should accompany thoughtful consideration of the long-term care and housing of chimpanzees.  Dr. Joseph Erwin provided commentary on many of these in a previous guest post, among them concerns about ensuring the highest quality of care for the animals:

Most chimpanzees in scientific and educational institutions (research colonies and zoological gardens) live in spacious, social, and secure environments, where they are provided with excellent professional healthcare, and are afforded protection under the Animal Welfare Act, through inspection by the USDA, and publicly available reports of those inspections. The legislative ban would require removal of chimpanzees from decent facilities that were built at great public expense, and would deposit hundreds of chimpanzees in “sanctuaries” that provide no assurance of competent professional care, are not subject to Animal Welfare Act protection, and are not publicly transparent.”

One of the biggest unanswered (and virtually unmentioned in public spheres) questions surrounding the effects of this legislation is where it is that these chimpanzees would go? Is the intent that they would stay in current facilities? That new facilities would be constructed? While some animal rights groups have advocated for moving chimpanzees from their current research facilities to Chimp Haven, there is little information that would indicate that is a feasible option. Nor do the discussions of cost-savings and future plans include information about projected costs to build sufficient sanctuary space that could accommodate the number of animals currently housed in research facilities.

This is a non-trivial issue. For example, the publicly-available NCRR cost information informs us that the cost to construct the only federally-funded chimpanzee sanctuary, Chimp Haven, was $11.8 million. Chimp Haven houses 130 animals.  In other words, the initial construction cost was just over $90,000 per chimpanzee.

There are an additional 594 NIH-supported chimpanzees currently housed in research facilities. There are also hundreds of privately-owned chimpanzees. Thus, on even rough calculation based on the construction cost of Chimp Haven, it would appear that at least many millions of dollars would be required to extend the capacity for sanctuary housing to these animals. 


The cost, feasibility, and plan for constructing additional facilities that could provide care for these chimpanzees does not seem apparent in the cost calculations for the current legislation. Nor is it an issue raised much in public discussion.  It is a relatively easy thing to call for an end to chimpanzee research and to encourage public support by appealing to fiscal conservatism. What is far more challenging is to include consideration of real factors that significantly influence the outcomes for the animals, including an accurate assessment of where they can be housed, how best practices for care can be supported, real costs and dedicated sources of funding for long-term maintenance and facilities. Those details matter and deserve far more attention than they currently receive by those claiming to have chimpanzees’ welfare as the utmost priority.

Allyson J. Bennett

A Closer Look at the Great Ape Protection Act (GAPA)

The status and future of chimpanzee research in the US are at the heart of much discussion lately in both scientific and public spheres.  A committee convened by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to consider the issue held a number of meetings and is expected to report its findings to the NIH by the end of this year. Legislation to end great ape research, also introduced in 2007 and 2009 (H.R. 1513: Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act of 2011;  S. 810: Great Ape  Protection and Cost Savings Act of 2011; GAPA), was again introduced last Spring.

Discussion of human relationships with the great apes, their role in research—past, present, and future—and our responsibility for their continued care deserve thoughtful, well-informed consideration by both the scientific community and the public.  One of the primary goals of Speaking of Research is to contribute to dialogue about animal research and to provide factual information that is sometimes missing from the public conversation.

In the case of chimpanzee research, their housing and care, and the GAPA legislation, it seems clear that there is uneven understanding of the current situation in the U.S., as well as lack of attention to the details and consequences of the proposed legislation were it to be enacted.  There has been significant and widespread discussion of whether chimpanzee research should continue.  What has received far less attention is what should happen to the chimpanzees should invasive research not continue. We take a closer look at GAPA here and also welcome others’ thoughts on the future of chimpanzee research, care, and housing in the U.S..

First up is the question of what exactly would be banned under GAPA.  The legislation is pitched as a measure to end invasive research with chimpanzees.  Much of the media coverage and discussion of chimpanzees in research also makes specific reference to invasive studies.

But what exactly does that mean?  The general definition given by the legislation is:

“The term ‘invasive research’ means any research that may cause death, injury,         pain, distress, fear, or trauma to a great ape, including—

– the testing of any drug or intentional exposure to a substance that may be detrimental to the health or psychological well-being of a great ape;

– research that involves penetrating or cutting the body or removing body parts, restraining, tranquilizing, or anesthetizing a great ape; or

– isolation, social deprivation, or other experimental manipulations that may be detrimental to the health or psychological well-being of a great ape.

Exclusions include:

– close observation of natural or voluntary behavior of a great ape, if the research does not require an anesthetic or sedation event to collect data or record observations;

– the temporary separation of a great ape from the social group of the great ape, leaving and returning by the own volition of the great ape;

– post-mortem examination of a great ape that was not killed for the purpose of examination or research; and the administration of a physical exam by a licensed veterinarian or physician conducted for the well-being of the individual great ape.

Physical Exam is defined as:

A physical exam conducted for the well-being of an individual great ape, as described in clause14 (i)(IV), may include the collection of biological samples to further the well-being of the individual great ape, the social group of the great ape, or the great ape species.”

It seems likely that when most people think of invasive research with chimpanzees they would probably consider studies that involve surgery or infectious disease.  Looking at the text above, it appears obvious that these would be precluded under GAPA.

What is less clear is whether noninvasive studies would also be disallowed under GAPA. Why?

First, because it precludes “research that involves … anesthetizing a great ape” something that is typically necessary to ensure both human and animal safety for studies that use noninvasive techniques such as neuroimaging (ex. magnetic resonance imaging, MRI; positron emission tomography, PET). Studies using MRI and PET with nonhuman primates are aimed at a wide spectrum of research addressing questions that range from evolutionary consideration of brain-behavior relationships to uncovering the effects of aging and factors that contribute to individual differences in health. Are these the types of studies—using equipment and techniques that are commonly used with humans– that typically come to mind as invasive studies? Probably not.

Whether anesthetizing a chimpanzee is an invasive procedure or one that is stressful is not clear-cut and is a question likely to generate a wide range of views among those with first-hand chimpanzee experience.  In part, it depends upon whether animals are trained to voluntarily, calmly, and cooperatively receive injections—something that is a best practice successfully implemented at many chimpanzee research facilities.  This video, shared with us by Dr. Steven Schapiro and the Michael E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research  serves as an excellent illustration of the practice.

The video shows a chimpanzee voluntarily, and without coercion, working with his human caregivers to give a sample of blood in exactly the manner of a human blood donor. The chimpanzees shown here are part of a training program led by a long-time leading expert in behavior and primatology, Dr. Schapiro. The video shows a chimpanzee who voluntarily places and holds his arm in a tube to provide a technician with access to draw blood. The chimpanzee is not restrained and is not coerced. The technician cues the chimpanzee with a “clicker” which provides an audible cue to signal the animal. The chimpanzee remains calm throughout the process and receives treats. The curious and calm approach and observation by another chimpanzee also tells us that the entire process is one that is not stressful to the animals.

Much of the language surrounding GAPA appears to be designed to convey a very different impression of the care of chimpanzees housed in research settings. We believe that a more honest discussion of chimpanzees in research should include consideration of the full range of housing and behavioral management, including acknowledgement of best practices such as those illustrated in this video and practiced in a wide range of settings.

The second question about what GAPA would preclude surrounds behavioral and cognitive research.  Many of these studies depend upon testing animals individually by temporarily separating them from their groups. GAPA asserts that such studies would be allowed only under very stringent—and possibly impractical—conditions. The chimpanzee could be temporarily separated from his/her group, but only if it were able to leave and return by its own volition.

For example, consider a recent study of prosocial behavior in chimpanzees by Frans de Waal and colleagues that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.  This study was positively featured on a Scientific American blog that also endorses GAPA. The study was conducted by bringing pairs of animals into a testing room containing tokens that they could exchange with the experimenter for a food reward. Their choices could result in both animals receiving food, or in a “selfish” outcome. The methods section doesn’t specify whether the animals were free to leave and enter the test room at their own volition, but it appears that they were not. If not, would we consider it invasive research?

A third question is whether GAPA would preclude studies that depend upon collection of biological samples that are acquired while animals are anesthetized for physical exams.  The language surrounding this is somewhat ambiguous, as it allows the sample collection if it is to “further the well-being of the individual great ape, the social group of the great ape, or the great ape species.”  What is not ambiguous is that, as written, GAPA would preclude even a simple blood draw—something humans routinely receive as part of medical care or even research—outside of an annual physical exam.

In sum, the issue of defining invasive research and the parameters of what should be allowed is clearly a complex issue. That complexity should be acknowledged in discussions of the future of chimpanzee research.  Virtually all of the procedures used in biomedical research involving chimpanzees that are regarded as invasive procedures are used in human beings in providing medical care.  The GAPA regards these procedures as acceptable if performed for the benefit of the individual great ape to provide care to that animal, but it is unacceptable if it is performed to gain knowledge that will improve the care of human beings or other great apes.

Similarly challenging are a range of other issues presented by consideration of the future of chimpanzees in the U.S., including decisions about their housing and care, as well as the source of long-term funding.

One premise of GAPA is that “research laboratory environments involving invasive research cannot meet the complex physical, social, and psychological needs of great apes.”  Sanctuaries are offered as the alternative for housing, yet little of the public discussion has focused on rigorous comparison of sanctuaries and research facilities in terms of either care offered or cost.

Finally, in this year’s iteration, the legislation has added language about “cost-savings” that appears to be based in analysis provided by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).  Whether the cost-savings claim is accurate or not remains open for debate.  Each of these issues will be covered in more detail in subsequent posts.

Whether the current legislation about great ape research passes or not, at this time it is perhaps more apparent than ever before that public interest in discussing the welfare of these animals is high. We hope that this interest carries over to serious discussion about the full range of issues and not only those that lend themselves to short-interest and emotive campaigns.

Allyson J. Bennett

*Disclosure – some of my collaborative research has involved behavioral and neuroimaging studies in laboratory chimpanzees.

Other posts on chimpanzee research:

On the cost of retiring chimpanzees and federal legislation aimed at ending chimpanzee research:  http://speakingofresearch.com/2011/12/08/what-cost-savings-a-closer-look-at-the-great-ape-protection-and-cost-savings-act-of-2011/


Guest post by primatologist Dr. Joseph Erwin:  http://speakingofresearch.com/2011/10/13/guest-post-efforts-to-ban-chimpanzee-research-are-misguided/

On the IOM chimpanzee panel:  http://speakingofresearch.com/2011/08/12/facts-must-inform-discussion-of-future-of-chimpanzee-research/

Guest post: Efforts to ban chimpanzee research are misguided.

The status and future of chimpanzee research in the US are at the heart of much discussion lately in both scientific and public spheres.  Discussion of human relationships with the great apes, their role in research—past, present, and future—and our responsibility for their continued care deserve thoughtful, well-informed consideration by both the scientific community and the public.  One of the primary goals of Speaking of Research is to contribute to dialogue about animal research and to provide factual information that is sometimes missing from the public conversation. In the case of chimpanzee research, their housing and care, and the GAPA legislation, it seems clear that there is uneven understanding of the current situation in the U.S., as well as lack of attention to the details and consequences of the proposed legislation were it to be enacted.  We have asked a number of primatologists involved in chimpanzee research, care and management to contribute to this discussion and begin a series on the issue here, with a guest post from Joseph M. Erwin, Ph.D. (UC Davis, 1974). 




Efforts to ban chimpanzee research are misguided.

The author is a semi-retired consulting primatologist, whose career included service as a zoological curator, journal editor, university lecturer, and research associate at two major primate research centers. His most recent full-time position was as a VP and Division Director for an NIH research contract company, where he developed and implemented a program of environmental enrichment for nonhuman primates, designed innovative facilities, and engaged in research projects on aging in great apes and conservation biology field studies of primate populations in Indonesia. He has held university appointments in psychology, anthropology, child development, physiology, behavioral biology, and pathobiology, including affiliations in schools of human and veterinary medicine, as well as arts and sciences. He is currently a research professor of anthropology at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.  These comments were prompted by the continuing effort to ban scientific research involving chimpanzees. These are the opinions of the author and are not represented as policies or perspectives of any of his current or former clients or any organization with which he is affiliated. 

Dr. Joseph Erwin

You may not want to read this essay if you believe it is morally repugnant and unacceptable to involve human subjects in any kind of biomedical or behavioral research or clinical trials. If you do not believe that humans are animals and chimpanzees are our nearest biological kin, well, maybe these thoughts will not appeal to you. If, however, you recognize that humans have some obligation to discover and apply knowledge that can benefit our own and other species, you might want to read on.

Chimpanzees, like humans and other animals, deserve respect and due consideration. “Due consideration” implies that better decisions can be made if they are based on knowledge and understanding than on ignorance. The more we study chimpanzees (and humans), the better we can understand them, and the more likely our decisions are to benefit their health, well-being, and conservation, and the less likely we are to perform risky, harmful, or inhumane procedures. The current quality of care, refinement of procedures, and dramatic improvement in zoological and research facilities, all testify to the fact that scientific studies of chimpanzees in nature and captivity have changed the way we think about chimpanzees and how we can appropriately and humanely learn from them.

The continuing campaign to ban invasive research involving chimpanzees relies heavily on stories about chimpanzees who were treated in ways none of us would currently condone. Even in the exaggerated tone with which these stories are told, there is some truth. During the fifties, sixties, and even to some extent in the seventies and eighties, some chimpanzees were kept under very restrictive conditions and were subjected to tests and procedures that are no longer considered humane or acceptable and have been discarded.

By about thirty years ago, things had begun to change. Environments became less restrictive. The critical value of maternal rearing and social grouping was recognized. Scientists and facility managers began to insist on improved physical facilities. The value of information obtained noninvasively became clearer, including acceptance of the important role of behavioral monitoring and training to cooperate with caregivers, in contrast to the coercive methods that were previously thought to be essential.

But, the drum beat continues to ban “invasive” research involving chimpanzees, with claims that scientists in research facilities continually and routinely “torture” and “abuse” chimpanzees. “Invasive” has a nasty sound to it, and most of us would not approve of what is implied by the term. That serves those who use the term deceptively very well. First, they equate “invasive” with “torture,” “abuse,” and “vivisection.” Then they formally define the term in ways that would prohibit procedures we currently welcome for ourselves and our loved ones. The proposed research ban would criminalize procedures of which well-informed people of good conscience would certainly approve. The implications are far reaching, and they are not in the best interests of either humans or chimpanzees.

Most chimpanzees in scientific and educational institutions (research colonies and zoological gardens) live in spacious, social, and secure environments, where they are provided with excellent professional healthcare, and are afforded protection under the Animal Welfare Act, through inspection by the USDA, and publicly available reports of those inspections. The legislative ban would require removal of chimpanzees from decent facilities that were built at great public expense, and would deposit hundreds of chimpanzees in “sanctuaries” that provide no assurance of competent professional care, are not subject to Animal Welfare Act protection, and are not publicly transparent.

The proposed legislation to ban chimpanzee involvement in research is fundamentally dishonest. It claims to provide an improved quality of life for chimpanzees, without providing any verifiable assurance that it would actually do so. It also claims that the legislation would result in cost-savings for taxpayers. How would money be saved? Perhaps by provision of facilities that are less expensive because they are less secure or do not meet the standards required of zoos and universities; possibly by using well-meaning unpaid volunteers, rather than professionally qualified care and veterinary staff; and maybe by ensuring that scientific grant funding from government sources could not be used for any kind of research (no matter how humanely conducted). Elimination of public research grant funds is a major aspect of the proposed cost savings. The authors of the legislation are surely aware that the public will continue to be financially responsible for the long-term care of chimpanzees owned by the government, whether the chimpanzees are involved in productive research or not. Further, when well-meant sanctuaries financially fail, as some are sure to do (consider the examples fromEurope), US taxpayers will be on the hook to care for the chimpanzees. Neither humans nor chimpanzees would benefit from the restrictions imposed by this kind of excessive regulation that will not live up to its claims.

We continue to have much to learn from the careful and humane scientific study of humans and great apes, including chimpanzees. Noninvasive research (more accurately defined as the sorts of procedures that are ethically acceptable for human subjects and are based on due consideration of chimpanzee and human differences) can provide much mutually beneficial information on aging and life span development, genomic influences on health and behavior, best healthcare practices, preventive medicine, and the cognitive and emotional characteristics humans share with our sibling species. Do care about chimpanzees and work hard to ensure that they are well cared for. Don’t fall for legislation that is anti-science, anti-research, and ultimately harmful to humans and chimpanzees.

Joseph M. Erwin

Singer Slips Up Over Science of Signs

A guest post today is courtesy of Mark Seidenberg addresses the errors of Peter Singer in his recent piece in the New York Review of Books. Mark was a graduate student at Columbia during the research on Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee which scientists attempted to teach sign language to. This piece is the second time we have looked at this issue, after our recent guest post by Herbert Terrace, who was the director of the project at Columbia University. This article has been reposted, with permission from its author, from the Language Log Blog.

Nim Chimpsky and I met when I was a graduate student at Columbia. “Project Nim” is an excellent documentary, a deeply sad story leavened with humor and astonishment at the behavior of the personalities involved . The parts of the movie that cover events I observed—the period when Nim lived at the Delafield Mansion in Riverdale NY and was driven down to Columbia for teaching—was accurate as far as it went. It’s a documentary, not a detailed record of what happened, and it is stronger on Nim’s personal history and the foibles of his human caretakers (and I use the term loosely) than on the science.

I was preparing to write a commentary on the movie and the project, but then Peter Singer’s piece appeared in the New York Review of Books (“The troubled life of Nim Chimpsky“, 8/18/2011). Singer is the Princeton philosopher famous for “Animal Liberation” and other influential, controversial books. His blog post about Nim got many facts wrong and I was moved to write a short response. It might be of interest to Language Log readers.

Full disclosure: I did not work directly on the Nim project or co-author any research papers resulting from the project. I was a graduate student in the psychology department working with Tom Bever (originally a co-PI on the project; he came up with the name); I also was a co-author with Terrace and Bever and another graduate student on a study of rule-learning (!) in pigeons (!!). My first journal article was a critical review of the studies of signing apes by the Gardners and others, co-authored with Laura Petitto (“Signing behavior in apes: A critical review“, Cognition 7(4) 1979).  I’ve contributed to some other articles and book chapters on related topics, such as Laura Petitto and Mark Seidenberg, “On the evidence for linguistic abilities in signing apes“, Brain and Language 8(2) 1979; Mark Seidenberg and Laura Petitto, “Ape Signing: Problems of Method and Interpretation“, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1981; and Mark Seidenberg and Laura Petitto,  “Communication, Symbolic Communication, and Language“, Journal of Experimental Psychology (General), 116(3) 1987.

Nim Chimpsky’s story is tragic and the “Project Nim” documentary effectively portrays the vanity, foolishness, and gross insensitivity of many of the human participants. Peter Singer is correct that the movie does not provide much information about the science, but his own attempt to fill this gap is ill-informed and incorrect in many details.

On Singer’s telling of the story, the Nim study was superfluous because other research had already settled the major issues. The Hayes’ earnest, laborious and ultimately pathetic attempt to teach a chimpanzee spoken language established the futility of that approach. Their study suggested to many that non-human primates might exhibit their latent linguistic abilities if given an alternative, non-vocal means of expression. This hypothesis was not a frivolous one (even if it turned out to be wrong). Singer approvingly mentions subsequent research by Beatrix and Allen Gardner and their graduate student Roger Fouts; Penny Patterson, longtime companion of Koko the gorilla; Sue Savage-Rumgaugh, and others as establishing the linguistic capacities of apes using gestural signs or keyboards instead of speech. Singer believes that these studies rendered the Nim study unnecessary, and that Terrace “raised the bar” for what counts as language because he found such results too threatening to his own views.

Little of this is consistent with what I observed as a graduate student at Columbia during the Nim project or what I found from close analyses of the ape language studies of the era. The apes in these studies acquired a variety of behaviors. The difficult issues concerned the bases of their behavior, how it did and did not relate to human language, and how one could tell. Singer shows no interest in these essential questions. The positive results that he approvingly cites were the result of applying the most generous possible interpretations to the apes’ behavior. Deciding what Washoe or Koko meant when they signed “banana” was difficult; researchers relied on a discredited method called “rich interpretation”: assume that the ape possesses whatever knowledge a child possesses in using the word. Of course, the basic challenge was to determine whether in fact the ape and child do possess the same knowledge, or how they differed. Other interpretations of the behavior—for example, that it was more like tool use—were not investigated.

Singer is far too receptive to these overgenerous accounts of ape language, which were challenged by people, like me, who had no personal investment in particular outcomes. The Gardners’ research with Washoe also ended when research funding was withdrawn because the science was not credible. Roger Fouts inherited Washoe, maintaining close contact with her and other chimpanzees in his lab, eventually describing his impressions and experiences in a book but conducting no systematic research. When challenged about her fantastical interpretations of Koko’s lugubrious signing, Patterson asserted that, having lived with Koko for many years, only she could properly interpret her language. The Koko “research” was conducted outside the boundaries of organized science: supported by a private foundation rather than research agencies; reported in People magazine but not the peer-reviewed literature. The myth that these animals could talk rests on anecdotes about creative utterances such as the “candy fruit” example that Singer repeats. (Singer conspicuously errs in stating that Washoe learned American Sign Language. She did not. The Gardners used signs loosely adapted from ASL, in English word order.) Examples like “candy fruit” and “water bird” are open to competing interpretations, but, like the filmed snippets of Koko and her kitty or Washoe supposedly teaching sign language to an offspring, they seem convincing to naïve observers, with the assistance of the trainer’s running commentary. Singer is not naïve, and his credulous reliance on this “evidence” is discomfiting.

In short, the bar was indeed raised because the data from these studies were limited and the researchers’ observations and interpretations unreliable, not because the findings were objectionable.

Terrace believed that Nim would genuinely learn to sign because he would conduct a better study. The initial enthusiasm about Nim’s progress arose from this expectation, from the fact that Nim was learning signs rapidly, and from the fact that it would take a few years of data collection and analysis to determine what he was doing. Nim’s teachers (like Laura Petitto) and observers (like myself) communicated to Terrace that the emerging story was not about a breakthrough in animal communication but rather how drastically his behavior differed from children’s. Terrace eventually concluded that the limitation was at the level of combining signs into sentences. In several articles I argued that the limitation was more basic: did any of the “linguistic apes” actually understand that a word (or sign or lexigram) such as “banana” designates a category of objects? That signing “banana” is not merely a way to obtain a banana but is the name for objects with certain properties? The animal could be highly intelligent and communicative and yet still lack knowledge of the concept of “name”, and other foundational elements of language.

This analysis is consistent with and provides a rational account of the behaviors seen in several studies (Gardners, Terrace, Savage-Rumbaugh, Premack), conducted with different species (common chimpanzee, bonobo, gorilla), using a range of methods (signing, keyboards, lexigrams) by researchers holding different assumptions, biases, and expectations.

Nim’s treatment was shameful. The placing of research and personal interests ahead of the well-being of the individual is reminiscent of the nearly contemporaneous study of Genie, the abused, isolated child who was the focus of another poorly-conceived study with a heart-rending outcome. The Nim study did take place, however, and it is important to understand the results that were obtained. They in no way justify his treatment; nor do they justify Singer’s distorted retelling of the events of the era.

Mark S. Seidenberg
Donald O. Hebb Professor
Hilldale Professor
Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience
University of Wisconsin-Madison