Tag Archives: Chimpanzee

Dangerous and Irresponsible: PETA attempts to intimidate NIH Director Francis Collins

PETA campaigns are rarely benign, from misrepresenting science to glorifying violence against women and scientists. Their latest campaign, reported yesterday by Science Insider, is no different. PETA have sent hundreds of letters to the neighbors of both NIH Director, Francis Collins, and world renowned researcher, Dr. Stephen J. Suomi, as part of a long running campaign against Dr Suomi’s NIH-funded research into the behavioral and biological development of non-human primates.


These letters, condemning Dr Suomi’s research, are full of inaccuracies. His work has been defended by several large scientific organisations. When PETA first launched their campaign against Dr Suomi earlier this year the American Psychological Association wrote:

We believe that the facts do not support PETA’s public statements about this research. Over the past three decades, Dr. Suomi and his collaborators have made significant contributions to the understanding of human and nonhuman animal health and behavior. Dr. Suomi’s work has been critical in understanding how the interactions between genes and the physical and social environments affect individual development, which in turn has enhanced our understanding of and treatments for mental illnesses such as depression, addiction, and autism.

The American Society of Primatologists statement noted:

The American Society of Primatologists supports research on non-human primates that is carefully designed and employs rigorous research protocols. Dr. Suomi’s research and consistent funding by the NIH attests to his adherence to prescribed protocols and regulations.

While the NIH’s own very robust statement, which it issued this January following a review of Dr Suomi’s research programme sparked by PETA’s complaint, concluded that it:

has achieved world class, enduring contributions to our understanding of the developmental, genetic, and environmental origins of risk and vulnerability in early life,” and “could be a truly remarkable point of departure for a unified theory describing the biological embedding of early social conditions and their developmental consequences.

Yet the letters are more than just another incident of misrepresented research. They are irresponsible and dangerous. By posting Dr Collins’ and Dr Suomi’s addresses, alongside a misleading picture of the NIH research, they have potentially given animal rights extremists the necessary information to carry out extremist actions. We have seen similar address releases in past result in terrifying home demonstrations as well as acts of vandalism and worse.

PETA have been involved in animal rights activism for decades and should be well aware of the potential risks – this whole strategy comes down to the harassment of scientists and their families to scare them from conducting important biomedical research. Indeed, a statement by PETA’s Alka Chandna to Science Insider that “If I had a neighbor who was doing this, I would want to know about it…It’s similar to having a sexual predator in your neighborhood.” suggests that harassment and intimidation is exactly what PETA have in mind. It becomes all the more sinister when you remember PETA’s record in glorifying and encouraging violence, and supporting violent animal rights extremists.

As Speaking of Research member Prof. David Jentsch noted in his comments to Science Insider:

PETA’s arguments about the value of the science fails on its merits, so they resort to these deeply personal attacks. We’re seeing more of these types of tactics across the animal rights movement. They’re essentially saying to scientists, ‘We know where you live.’

Is this what PETA want?

Is this what PETA want?

So will PETA’s approach succeed? The fact is that very few of the scientists targeted by PETA or other animal rights extremists have ever given up their research, and for some – and David Jentsch himself is a good example – being targeted has prompted them to become vocal advocates for animal research, which one suspects is not the result the animal rights groups intended.

It’s also worth noting that on previous occasions where animal rights extremists have targeted the neighbors of scientists on this way, they have responded with displays of support for the scientist and their family. We expect that this time will be no different (especially as PETA are hardly the most trusted of organizations).

It seems unlikely that Collins will be cowed by PETA’s tactics, after all as a researcher who has spoken up in favour of human embryonic stem cell research when it was under threat, and who as NIH Director frequently has to deal the demands of wilfully ignorant and frequently obnoxious politicians, he has probably developed quite a thick skin.

Indeed, during a discussion of the NIH’s flagship BRAIN Initiative at the Society for Neuroscience meeting last month Collins was asked directly about non-human primate research, and responded by acknowledging the need for non-human primate research in the BRAIN Initiative and the need for continued outreach to the public on the importance of animals in advancing biomedical research.

Some commentators have suggested a connection between the PETA campaign and yesterday’s announcement by the NIH that it has decided to retire all its remaining research chimpanzees. While some may be tempted to think this, it seems unlikely to be the case. As several researchers noted in the Nature News article reporting the NIH decision, there are still some question marks over the NIH’s decision. In particular how the NIH will ensure that the conditions in which the chimps are retired to meet the high welfare standards of current NIH facilities, and how it will affect valuable non-invasive neurocognitive, genomic, and behavioural research that most sanctuaries do not have the facilities to support, is still far from clear.

However, it is also readily apparent that this decision was driven by the fast decreasing use of chimps in biomedical research over the past 5 years, and in particular the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s recent decision to give research chimps endangered species protection, which prevents any invasive biomedical research that doesn’t benefit wild chimpanzee populations, a ruling that arguably made supporting even a small research chimp colony unviable for the NIH. PETA’s most recent harassment campaign is unlikely to have had much – if any – affect on the NIH’s decision making.

Francis Collins

The situation is very different for other non-human primate species, which continue to play a crucial role in many areas of NIH-funded research. Francis Collins himself noted this  in the official statement on the decision to no longer support chimpanzee research, when he concluded by writing:

These decisions are specific to chimpanzees. Research with other non-human primates will continue to be valued, supported, and conducted by the NIH.

Speaking of Research applauds Francis Collins’ continued support for non-human primate research, and his refusal to concede to PETA’s attempts to bully him into a decision that would do serious damage to the NIH’s status a world leader in biomedical research, and indeed to progress against a wide range of devastating diseases.

Speaking of Research condemns the efforts of PETA to stand in the way of medical research that can change lives. Almost 20% of the US suffered from mental health illnesses in the past year. The research community is morally obligated to do what it can to help understand and treat these devastating conditions. We also condemn a PETA tactic that risks exposing researchers to acts of violent extremism that PETA claim not to support.

We hope Francis Collins and the NIH will not bow to pressure, but will continue to stand up in defense of the research community and the importance of biomedical research.

Speaking of Research

Chimpanzee Retirement: Facts, Myths, and Motivation

How often have you heard the claim that chimpanzees who have moved to a sanctuary have felt “dirt and grass under their feet, sunshine on their faces” for the first time in their entire lives because they have come from laboratories where they have only known barren, concrete environments?

Yerkes chimpanzees

Chimpanzees at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

You may hear it pretty often if you follow the fundraising and publicity campaigns that are aimed at raising money to support facilities that care for animals retired from research.  Among many examples, are recent comments by Cathy Willis Spraetz, president and CEO of Chimp Haven. Chimp Haven is the US chimpanzee sanctuary supported and administered primarily by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through public, federal funds that assure lifetime retirement care of research chimpanzees. Chimp Haven was founded in 1995 by behavioral scientist Dr. Linda Brent and a group of primatologists and business professionals.

In a recent presentation, Chimp Haven’s current CEO Spraetz said:

“Many of these chimpanzees have spent literally decades in laboratories. And so their experience has been concrete and mesh, not grass, not dirt. And so after decades of being there, coming to Chimp Haven is a novel experience and a very scary one. Many of them do not want to put their feet down on grass or dirt. …  We try to accommodate the chimpanzees and meet them where they are. The good news is that many of them, after a couple of years, actually can transition. But in the meantime, we give them a lot of different spaces so they can feel comfortable where they are.” [Emphasis added.]

Similarly, in a CNN story this weekend“Retired means to sanctuary. Labs are lots of things, but they are certainly not sanctuaries, and so it’s important that the chimps come here,” Spraetz said. She noted that some lab chimps have lived in cages for so long, they’re afraid of grass when they arrive at Chimp Haven. Gradually, they become accustomed to living in a more natural setting.”

The image and language resonate. They evoke emotional responses in compassionate people who care about animal welfare. But are they claims that are representative of the actual situation?

In many cases, they are not at all. For example, the picture below shows chimpanzees in four settings. In each, it is easy to see that the chimpanzees have dirt under their feet and sunshine on their faces.  Where are they?  Two are current research facilities, one is an NIH-funded sanctuary, and one is a publicly-funded zoo.

chimp housing [Autosaved]

Clockwise: Top – Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Atlanta, GA (Note: Yerkes’ chimpanzees are not NIH-owned or supported); Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, IL;  MD Anderson Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine, Bastrop, TX; Chimp Haven, Keithsville, LA.

In fact, the majority of research chimpanzees in the US live in settings that provide outdoor housing, including dirt and sunlight. They also provide extensive and complex climbing structures, opportunities for foraging and tool-use, toys, fresh produce and treats, bedding, interaction with expert and compassionate caregivers, and state-of-the-art medical care and facilities.

Are all the facilities equal in all aspects? No. But neither are the sanctuaries, zoos, and other settings that house chimpanzees in the US– more chimpanzees, in fact, than are housed in research facilities (Chimp Care).*  Furthermore, those research facilities are subject to more extensive standards, greater public oversight, and more public transparency than the zoos, sanctuaries, entertainment, and private homes that house chimpanzees.

Misrepresenting chimpanzees’ current housing and care is a problem.

There are a few explanations for why anyone would make the claim, or use partial truths, to encourage others to believe that most research chimpanzees live in barren concrete environments. One is simple lack of knowledge and experience. Another is a deliberate misrepresentation. Neither serves the animals or partnership with others in order to thoughtfully provide for the chimpanzees’ best long-term care. Nor does it serve the public.

It is likely that many members of the public may not be familiar with accurate representation of the conditions and housing of chimpanzees in NIH-funded primate centers.  That is not the case, however, for many involved in sanctuary efforts and who have first-hand knowledge of the dirt, sunshine, and enriched care that chimpanzees receive in many– if not all– research facilities.

Chimpanzees 2

Chimpanzees at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

The question isn’t whether there is room for continuing improvement in captive chimpanzee care and housing. No one would claim any captive setting is the same as the wild, or that any sanctuary, zoo, or research facility is beyond improvement. (The same is true for the wild, where chimpanzees are subject to many negative outcomes due to human influence and vital conservation efforts require more support.) But in reality, there is often more similarity than difference in chimpanzees’ actual care and housing between many of the best sanctuaries, zoos and research facilities in the US and in other countries. The question is how to identify best practices that balance animal welfare and the facilities’ purposes and then find workable solutions and funds to make them common practices.

Furthermore, a closer comparison of the actual conditions at the federal sanctuary facility and those at the facilities in which the animals currently live is also key to serious, fact-informed evaluation of statements made about the NIH’s progress and eventual decisions about moving chimpanzees from their current homes to Chimp Haven.  In this weekend’s CNN story, the director of Chimp Haven makes a number of arguments in favor of increased funding and speeding the movement of chimpanzees to the Louisiana facility.  Many of those arguments revolve around whether, and how much of a difference there is between the different settings, and whether there is a difference to the animals’ well-being.

The quality of all of those evaluations depends on factual and specific comparison, as well as evidence for meaningful difference in the animals’ well-being.  The balance of benefit and harm includes the known stress to the animals that is caused by moving across country, into new situations, and into new social groups. Although movement to sanctuary may have benefits, it also has costs to the animals. For example, beyond relocation to unfamiliar housing, care practices and caregivers, the animals also face potential disruption of their social groups, introduction to new groups and upheaval in dominance hierarchies. The adverse impact of these stressors is of particular concern for elderly animals and for others who may be especially vulnerable to negative health effects of stress. Thus, consideration of those balances and comparison of different facilities must be taken together to inform decisions about investments that best suit the animals’ needs.

Bastrop chimps tool use

Chimpanzees at MD Anderson Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine, Bastrop, TX.

Federal public funding for retired chimpanzees
Over the past 15 years the US public, through federal legislation with overwhelming bipartisan support, has committed to an estimated $86 million to support the lifetime care, housing, and enrichment of retired research chimpanzees. In 2000, federal legislation (Chimpanzees Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection; CHIMP Act) established the first national chimpanzee sanctuary and committed life-time funding for retired NIH chimpanzees. As a result, in 2002, a $30 million public investment was made to build and fund Chimp Haven. Chimp Haven is the only federally-funded– though not the largest– US chimpanzee sanctuary.  (For more history and information see here: http://dpcpsi.nih.gov/orip/cm/chimpanzee_management_program)

By 2013, following NIH’s decision to retire the majority of its chimpanzees, additional funds were required for Chimp Haven’s ongoing support. Thus, the CHIMP Act Amendments of 2013 were passed by the US House, Senate, and President. Under new legislation, NIH may

“use already-appropriated funds to pay for care of chimpanzees housed in federal sanctuaries if doing so would be more efficient and economical for the NIH.”

An analysis by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in 2012 estimated an additional $56M cost to retire and maintain federally funded chimpanzees for a 5 year period (not the animals’ lifespan). The cost to support the entirety of the NIH’s ~500 chimpanzees may be roughly $8M each year; although the cost will likely vary significantly with increasing medical and care needs as the population ages. The CBO analysis also determined that there was no cost savings to moving federally-owned chimpanzees to sanctuary instead of research facilities.

US federal funds provide the majority of revenue for Chimp Haven and support the majority (~75%) of the cost of each NIH chimpanzee retired at Chimp Haven. Chimp Haven was built and funded primarily for retirement of publicly-owned research chimpanzees. However, it is also used for retirement of privately owned animals who are not supported directly via federal funds. In October of 2014, NIH reported an annual expenditure of $4.44M to Chimp Haven for the care of 191 NIH-owned chimpanzees and an average care cost of $63 per day per chimpanzee. The same report includes a range of $32-60 daily care cost for chimpanzees in other NIH facilities that house NIH-owned chimpanzees.

Chimp Haven photo from NAPSA

Chimp Haven, US federal chimpanzee retirement facility. http://www.primatesanctuaries.org/sanctuaries/chimp-haven-inc/

Federal support for chimpanzees goes beyond direct care of research animals. For example, NIH and NSF supported scientific research has produced new knowledge that continues to benefit chimpanzees in the wild and in captivity. Furthermore, federal investment in the nation’s primate research centers from the 1960s on supported continuing advances in chimpanzee housing, care, and enrichment that now drive best practices and chimpanzee health care in zoos, sanctuaries, and research facilities.

chimp haven 2

Chimp Haven, US federal chimpanzee retirement facility. http://www.primatesanctuaries.org/sanctuaries/chimp-haven-inc/

Is misrepresenting research facilities necessary?

It is unfortunate that some of those leading sanctuary publicity and fundraising efforts continue to base their appeals in claims that generally have little basis in current fact. It is also unfortunate that the many campaigns for fundraising for the federal sanctuary fail to let the public know that the NIH and US have, in fact, pledged lifetime support for federally-owned chimpanzees. This level of public support has not always occurred in those countries that have dismantled their chimpanzee research facilities.

Some of the current campaigns centered on US chimpanzees give the impression that NIH ended research and put the chimpanzees out on the street without a dime, leaving others to provide for their “rescue.” That is far from the truth.

Fundraising is required to meet roughly one-quarter of the cost for NIH-owned chimpanzees at Chimp Haven and the full cost for chimpanzees at other sanctuaries.  But for those that care about supporting the animals and decisions in the animals’ best interests, that fundraising should not require a storyline based in half-truth or deliberate misrepresentation of the conditions in other facilities or the efforts of others who care for chimpanzees.

Allyson J. Bennett

* An estimated 1,822 chimpanzees live in the US. The care for roughly half of the chimpanzees in the US, including most of the 206 chimpanzees retired to the federal sanctuary (Chimp Haven), is provided in large measure by federal public funds. According to Chimp Care, a census project from Lincoln Park Zoo, US research facilities house 625 chimpanzees, while a research reserve houses 172.  Private sanctuaries house roughly one fifth of US chimpanzees (N=318). Nearly one-quarter of the chimpanzees in the US live in zoos, both those accredited by a non-public agency, the American Zoological Association, (262) and facilities designated as unaccredited in Chimp Care’s data (174). Chimpanzees in the US are also kept in entertainment venues (14) or by private breeders and private owners who regard them as pets (51). Such private ownership of primates is opposed by leading scientific organizations including the American Society of Primatologists.

Ebola virus vaccine developed to protect wild gorillas and chimpanzees

The current Ebola virus outbreak in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia is a stark reminder on the need for effective therapies and vaccines for this disease, which has claimed the lives of thousands of people in West Africa in a series of outbreaks since the 1970’s.

It is not just the human inhabitants of West Africa who are threatened by the Ebola virus. Over the past few decades thousands of endangered gorillas and chimpanzees in the wild have been killed in devastating outbreaks, including over 5,000 gorillas in just one outbreak in Northern Congo in 2002—2003.

A new report (1) by scientists at the University of Cambridge and New Iberia Research Center illustrates “high conservation potential” of vaccines for endangered wild primates devastated by viral disease. The paper published today in the prestigious scientific journal PNAS shows that candidate vaccines which despite very promising preclinical results never complete the expensive licensing process for human use – can be co-opted for use in populations of highly endangered species such as gorillas and chimpanzees.

The study was supported by an unusual constellation of organizations, including the Universities of Cambridge and Louisiana, the conservation charity Apes Incorporated, the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and the biotech company Integrated BioTherapeutics Inc.  The work was conducted at the US’s New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana, one of the research facilities that houses chimpanzees who are not owned by the National Institutes of Health.

This is the first time that a conservation-specific vaccine trial has been undertaken on captive chimpanzees, and proves that a vaccine against Ebola virus is both safe and capable of producing a robust immune response in chimpanzees.

The research team, led by Dr Peter Walsh of the University of Cambridge, administered captive chimpanzees with a new virus-like particle (VLP) vaccine being developed by the biotech company Integrated Biotherapeutics for use on humans. While they did not challenge the vaccinated animals directly with Ebola, researchers tested whether antibodies harvested from the chimpanzees’ blood could protect mice against the deadly virus. They also monitored the chimpanzees in case the vaccine produced health complications.

Results showed that the vaccine is safe in chimpanzees. The vaccinated chimpanzees developed robust immune responses, with virus-specific antibodies detected as early as 2 to 4 weeks after the first vaccination in some animals and within 2 weeks of the second vaccination in all animals.

The antibody transfer study is not the only evidence that this vaccine will work. In 2007 a key paper (2) published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases by Dr Kelly Warfield of the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases – who was also first author on today’s PNAS paper – demonstrated that the VLP vaccine used to vaccinate chimpanzees provides rhesus macaques with very robust protection against the Ebola virus. The 2007 paper also highlights earlier studies in mice and guinea pigs that allowed the refining and evaluation of VLP vaccines against challenge with filoviruses such as Ebola and Marburg, work that underpinned the development of this vaccine.

Transmission electron micrograph of Ebola virus. Courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Transmission electron micrograph of Ebola virus. Courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Next steps:  Testing in captive apes prior to field trials

The authors of today’s paper note that these VLP vaccines currently require multiple administrations to reach “full potency”, but could prove the difference between survival and extinction for species that are highly endangered or immunologically fragile but also easy to vaccinate.

Peter Walsh stressed the need to test this vaccine on captive ape populations prior to field trials.

We need to be pragmatic about saving these animals now before they are wiped out forever, and vaccination could be a turning point. But park managers are adamant – and rightly so at this stage – that all vaccines are tested on captive apes before deployment in the wild. This means access to captive chimpanzees for vaccine trials.”

The ability to test new vaccines for conservation purposes relies on research access to captive chimpanzees, but this access is now under threat just as the recognition of its necessity is increasing in the conservation community.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is now considering regulations that would end all biomedical testing on captive chimpanzees over the next few years – the US being the only developed country to allow such research. The study’s authors believe that the US should establish a “humanely housed” captive chimpanzee population dedicated solely to conservation research.  The US already has research facilities with humane housing, including social groups, complex enclosures, expert behavioral management to provide enrichment, cognitive engagement, excellent clinical care and chimpanzees trained for cooperative clinical procedures. Thus, it is possible that the need for conservation research could be met by existing populations or centers.

Peter Walsh suggests that, by ending captive research in an effort to pay back an “ethical debt” to captive chimpanzees, the US Government is poised to “renege on an even larger debt to wild chimpanzees” at risk from viruses transmitted by tourists and researchers – as safety testing on captive chimpanzees is required before vaccines can be used in the wild.

“There is a large pool of experimental vaccines that show excellent safety and immunity profiles in primate trails but are never licensed for human use, we’ve demonstrated that it’s feasible for very modestly funded ape conservationists to adapt these orphan vaccines into conservation tools, but the ability to trial vaccines on captive chimps is vital. Ours is the first conservation-related vaccine trial on captive chimpanzees – and it may be the last.

“Although Congress specifically instructed the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to consider the conservation value of captive chimpanzee research, no findings on its possible impact were presented (in the 2011 Institute of Medicine report – SR). If the biomedical laboratories that have the facilities and inclination to conduct controlled vaccine trials ‘liquidate’ (by which he means retire to sanctuaries – SR) their chimpanzee populations, there will be nowhere left to do conservation-related trials.”

Consideration of the work, its continuation, and implications for wild chimpanzees poses challenging ethical questions, particularly in light of recent changes in US chimpanzee research.  They are questions worth serious discussion not only to inform the future of the vaccine research and conservation efforts, but also because they highlight some of the core issues in decision-making about nonhuman animal research.  Primary among the philosophical and pragmatic questions is whether it is ethical to subordinate the interests of individual animals to those of the species, or of other species.  Should some captive chimpanzees be subjected to invasive, infectious disease research in order to potentially benefit wild apes—not only chimpanzees, but also the gorillas who are most threatened by Ebola?  Another set of questions surround which chimpanzees should be used in this research.  Should it be chimpanzees housed in research facilities in the US who are now to be retired to sanctuaries?  Chimpanzees privately owned by research facilities in the US?  Zoo chimpanzees in Europe who are not intended to breed?

While none of these questions are new, progress in Ebola vaccine development and testing puts into sharp relief the kinds of serious ethical challenges that should engage both the scientific community and the broad public.  The questions are not, as the quote from Peter Walsh suggests, relevant only in the US, they are—like many issues in conservation—global.  The results of scientific study and medical progress are not limited to the country in which the research is performed and in this case, it is the global community that has interests in protecting highly endangered African ape populations.

Ethical consideration of conservation goals vs individual ape’s interests

Invasive research with chimpanzees is permitted in a number of countries, including both the US and the UK, when the goal of the research is to benefit the species itself.  At the heart of this justification is priority of the interests of the species, rather than the interests of the individual animal. Subordinating the individual ape’s interests to those of his own species is generally consistent with conservation and environmental ethics, where the basic overarching goal is protection of natural resources, balance, and preservation of endangered species.

By contrast, the basic position of those arguing for personhood for great apes, or for animal rights, is to protect the interests of the individual. From the latter perspective, using captive chimpanzees to develop and test a vaccine for a disease that they do not have and that is unlikely to pose a threat to them, would be ethically prohibited.

It is the conservationist position that appears compatible with performing infectious disease and invasive research with captive animals in order to potentially protect highly endangered wild populations from a disease that greatly affects their survival and future.  Whether the species’ interests should outweigh the individual’s as ethical justification for the research and testing is not the only question, however.  We might also ask which individuals should serve in the research?  Should these be laboratory chimpanzees?  Those living in zoos?  Sanctuaries?  The research was conducted in the US, but just as well could be conducted in the UK or other countries with appropriate scientific resources and expertise.

The use of chimpanzees in US biomedical research has received a great deal of attention in the past several years, with the frequent assertion that it is one of only two countries that continue chimpanzee research.  What is actually true is that the US has maintained chimpanzees in research facilities that serve the global scientific community. Foreign scientists, including the British researcher involved in the Ebola vaccine study and Canadian scientists, conduct research in US research centers with chimpanzees.  Following the recent National Institutes of Health decision to move away from the small amount of invasive and infectious disease research involving chimpanzees and retire almost all of its research chimpanzees, it is now far less clear that the US differs substantially from other countries with respect to being the location where Ebola vaccine research should occur.

Given the nature of the justification for the work, there appears to be no legal reason that it would be opposed in the UK or other countries that allow for invasive studies meant to benefit the species. The real threat is that if chimpanzees are not available in research facilities it will be impossible to test vaccines to protect wild apes against deadly diseases, even where regulations permit such research.

So the primary obstacle to performing this work in the UK or elsewhere in the EU might be the absence of laboratory chimpanzees; however, like many countries, the UK does hold captive chimpanzees in other types of facilities. The justification for the work appears to fall within current use of European zoo chimpanzees for research to improve the health of the individual or the species, a recent example being research on heart disease in Zoo ape populations. In addition while the EU Directive on animals in scientific research forbids the use of apes in biomedical research, this ban does not cover “veterinary clinical trials required for the marketing authorisation of a veterinary medicinal product” which would cover vaccines against Ebola or other infectious diseases.

The inherent weighting of species’ interests over the individual’s interests for the Ebola vaccine work is  consistent with the ethical justification often offered for keeping endangered species captive in zoological parks in order to serve conservation goals.  These goals are thought to be served in two ways in zoos: First, by allowing animals to reproduce in carefully managed breeding schemes where decision-making is driven by the goal of maintaining genetic diversity.  In this way, populations of endangered animals are continued within protected environments to guard against the species becoming extinct should the wild population disappear.  The interests of the individual animals may be served by the management practices, but the individual’s welfare is not the primary consideration. Thus, individuals may be removed from stable social groups to move to other zoos and form new breeding pairs, other individuals may not have the opportunity to reproduce.  Surplus males may be castrated, or may live in all-male social groups.  The recent controversy over the killing of a young male giraffe in a Danish zoo provided a vivid example of subordinating an individual animal’s interests to those of the group, species, or zoo.

A second justification offered for zoos is that they provide opportunities for public education that in turn can increase public support for conservation in the wild. The first goal could be served by keeping animals in situations without public display, in sanctuary or private park settings. Thus, it is this second goal that is the primary justification for public zoos. Given that the primary ethical justification for maintaining captive apes in zoos is related to conservation, the idea of considering these animals within the pool of eligible research subjects for vaccine development and testing to serve conservation goals is not unreasonable.

Consideration of the work by Peter Walsh, Kelly Warfield and colleagues, its next steps, and implications for wild chimpanzees poses challenging ethical questions.  The choice to develop and test a vaccine may harm individual animals, but benefit some of their species and other apes, in this case gorillas (and potentially also humans if the threat from Ebola grows). Some will argue that it is wrong to use individual animals in work that does not benefit them directly, though benefit to others has long been considered an adequate justification for clinical trials in humans. Here, ruling out benefits to others as a justification for research would eliminate the possibility of a vaccine that could save highly endangered wild populations.

Questions about which animals serve in research and where the work is undertaken clearly merit serious consideration that takes into account global responsibilities and the recent changes in US chimpanzee research.  Today’s announcement demonstrates that making choices about animal research is complex, with harms not only in action, but also inaction.  The work should stimulate serious, thoughtful discussion not only within the scientific, conservation, and animal protection communities, but also among policy makers and the wider public.

Paul Browne, PhD and Allyson J. Bennett, PhD

  1. Warfield KL, Goetzmann JE, Biggins JE, Kasda MB, Unfer RC, Vu H, Aman MJ, Olinger GG, Walsh PD “Vaccinating captive chimpanzees to save wild chimpanzees” PNAS 2014 Published online 26 May 2014. http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/short/1316902111
  2. Warfield KL, Swenson DL, Olinger GG, Kalina WV, Aman MJ, Bavari S. “Ebola virus-like particle-based vaccine protects nonhuman primates against lethal Ebola virus challenge.” J Infect Dis. 2007 Nov 15;196 Suppl 2:S430-7. PMID: 17940980

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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