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.

4 thoughts on “Animal Rights Bill Under Consideration in the Senate

  1. There is one positive apect to the latest version of this bill, it now specificies that blood draws are not included under the definition “invasive” which will be great news for those involved in genetic research. On the other hand the ban on sedation for non-aquiescent apes will be very problematic for any cognitive or behavioral research that requires MRI or similar scans for which sedation is normally required.

    I’m not so sure that this latest version will be cost neutral as the Congressional Budget Office states, as there is no mention of the 50% or so of chimpanzees that are not owned by the NIH. Who is going to pay the costs of caring for these when they are retired?

    Also, why no exception for research aimed at developing measures to protect Chimpanzees or other apes in the wild from diseases? this is an area where some invasive research is likely be necessary in the coming years – even if it’s just to administer a vaccine in order to test it’s ability to stimulate an immune response. The recent EU directive certainly allows such research.

    It’s still quite a poorly thought-out bill, even judged according to it’s own objectives.

  2. There is significant research going on (Ebola, Marburg virus) that would help the animals and humans affected by these diseases (IOM report). Other diseases are also studied to help in the fight against hiv/aids for example. Whilst protecting the species is crucial let’s not close all doors but keep options available. Perhaps it is time for other countries (especially range countries) to start acting as relays for this research? My vote is clear: oppose GAPCSA!

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