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