Heat or light? An Analysis of Chimp Haven’s Message

Earlier this week the president of Chimp Haven, Cathy Willis Spraetz, issued a rebuttal to “a number of articles and blog posts focusing on the retirement of federally-owned chimpanzees to Chimp Haven.” She identifies the goal of the open message as a response to address the “concerns and resistance from some in the laboratory community,” whom she described as increasingly direct and vocal.

Spraetz is correct that there are increasingly direct and vocal questions about the retirement of federally-owned chimpanzees. But rather than focusing on the serious and challenging questions that have been raised, or on the repeated calls for the communities involved to have a more thoughtful, fact-informed consideration of the topic, she instead frames the issue as a polarized situation in which the “laboratory community” is unjustifiably criticizing Chimp Haven. To do so, she provided a series of misinterpretations and inaccuracies of the articles and blog posts. We respond to some of those below, but also encourage people to read her letter in its entirety and to read recent posts and articles in order to evaluate the claims Spraetz makes. More importantly, we continue to urge people to step back from polarization and instead identify what information is needed and what considerations and actions should be taken in order to make the best decisions that balance the chimpanzees’ health and wellbeing.

The first issue the letter poses is that the Chimp Haven CEO, Spraetz, failed to include links to the original articles she aims to rebuke. That is problematic because the omission of the original sources prevents readers from reading what she interprets as “accusations” (Spraetz’s term) and forming their own opinions. Whether accidental or deliberate, such omission is irresponsible and should be corrected in the posting on the Chimp Haven site.

The omissions, in addition to the framing and language in the letter, do nothing to further thoughtful dialogue on the topic at hand – the welfare of retired research chimpanzees. What it does is distract from serious consideration with a fueling of the “Us vs. Them” rhetoric. In this case, the “Them” is the “laboratory community,” one that Spraetz seems to cast as unconcerned about chimpanzees’ health and welfare. Unfortunately many may buy into this message. Why? Because rather than taking a thoughtful look at the animals’ care, conditions, and actual outcomes, it is easier to simply argue that “labs” are bad and “sanctuaries” are good.

I encourage interested readers to take the time to thoroughly read the Spraetz piece and the sources that inspired her message. Here, I address Spraetz’s message piece by piece (as I did on Twitter) and clarify the ways in which it distorts quotes and makes inferences that simply are not true. By reading the original sources that Spraetz described, it is clear that blaming Chimp Haven – or the excellent behavioral and care staff – for the deaths of the chimpanzees that were relocated there several months ago is not the focus. Rather, the focus in on better understanding and consideration of what happened to recently relocated animals – a consideration that should inform future decisions.

CH message image 2

In fact, Dr. Buckmaster did not write that the chimps “’suffered and died’ because of their transfer to Chimp Haven.” This claim distorts the “suffered and died” quote by taking it out of context. Rather, Buckmaster wrote:

“In a blog posted in 2013, the CEO of the Humane Society of the United States congratulated his followers for their hard work, reinforcing their effort by stating that criteria put forth by a NIH working group made it clear that “not one laboratory could be considered ethologically appropriate” for chimpanzees. This is not true. In fact, many of our chimps would fare better if they were allowed to retire in place. And several of these precious creatures have already suffered and died because the NIH would not allow them to do so.” (emphasis added; Lab Animal, Vol. 45, No. 7, p. 271).

Buckmaster made an argument for retirement-in-place; she did not claim that Chimp Haven was responsible for the chimps’ deaths.

CH message image 4

CH message image 3

 

There are several inaccuracies here. The first inaccurate statement, “invasive research with this species,” implies that until NIH’s November 2015 decision to “retire all federally owned chimpanzees,” all research was invasive in nature. In fact, since 2012, the facility from which these particular chimps retired conducted no biomedical research but only conducted observational studies.

Ironically, recently Chimp Haven proudly announced that it has entered into a partnership with Lincoln Park Zoo that will enable similar observational research, and that may also include biomedical research.

Another inaccuracy is the accusation, “…we cannot allow this community to disparage the quality of care we provide…or to question our organization’s dedication to our mission…”

This is followed shortly by the statement that Buckmaster “is able to so clearly judge the quality of Chimp Haven.” In reading and re-reading the articles that Spraetz refers to, one sees that there is not a single instance of any article or post author questioning the quality of care at Chimp Haven or Chimp Haven’s dedication. The sole instance is a commenter on the blog. In fact, the word “quality” does not appear once in Buckmaster’s article, and appears only once in Speaking of Research’s article on the partnership in the concluding sentence:

“Conducting research is compatible with both high quality care and with truly valuing what the animal contributes to new knowledge that benefits individuals, the species, and the future.”

Likewise, the word “dedication” does not appear either in Buckmaster’s article or in Speaking of Research’s article on the partnership.

CH message 5

 

First, Buckmaster does not quote Dr. Abee at all in her article. Rather, Abee was quoted in this article from December 2015 in which, again, the focus is on making the argument for retirement-in-place. Further, Spraetz’s quote of Abee is taken out of context. Abee’s entire quote reads:

“I don’t mean this as a criticism of Chimp Haven, but we uprooted them, took them from their family groups, we moved them cross country, we put them in unfamiliar settings with caregivers who didn’t know them, and four died,” Abee said. “We would not have anticipated those four to die if they had stayed here.”

So Abee made a point not to criticize Chimp Haven and to make it abundantly clear that he had issue with the transfer itself.

Second, underscoring the statement, “the labs themselves made such decisions when they selected which chimpanzees to send” suggests that if the labs had “chosen” these particular chimps to leave at a later time, their outcomes may have differed. In fact, most of the chimps that died were very old. Research shows that involuntary relocation in old age is stressful (and a new paper shows that relocation of lab chimps to a sanctuary resulted in chronic stress and behavioral changes). Thus, it is possible that it would not have mattered when these chimps moved; their fates may have been the same. But that is unknown right now and is a question that can only be answered by examining what happened to the animals that have transferred, including those 9 of 13 who died. It is exactly this kind of review—based in facts, actual records, and expertise—that is called for in order to inform future decisions. An unwillingness to do so – and to share these with the public and others who have interest – undermines confidence that everything that can be done is being done to protect the animals.

CH message image 6

 

The statement, “The anonymous blog author questioned the partnership…” is another misrepresentation. Any reader can see that Speaking of Research actually clearly explained why such research would be warranted. In fact, Spraetz’s explanation for the research sounds a lot like Speaking of Research’s:

“It may seem odd that a sanctuary—a place whose justification and primary goal is to provide chimpanzees with care—has a need to evaluate the effect of visitors on the animals’ welfare. However, although the sanctuary is not open to all members of the public on a daily basis, it does appear to have extensive public visitation and education programs that presumably results in a need to evaluate the effect of visitors on the animals.”

Moreover, the blog author goes on to state, “the sanctuary offers a resource that zoos cannot for studies that are adequately powered to test scientific hypotheses.”

CH message image 8

This statement as a whole is not supported by any of the articles to which Spraetz refers. No author has made a accusations toward Chimp Haven’s care, and certainly no attacks on it have been made in these articles. The conversations have been focused on the issue of transferring the chimps versus allowing them to retire-in-place, on the bigger questions about what defines sanctuary and research,  and what is needed for a serious, thoughtful, and balanced consideration to inform decisions going forward.

Spraetz’s comment is precisely the kind of statement that leads to inflammatory reactions and further divides the people who have the same goal: the optimal conditions and highest quality of life for the chimpanzees.

Spraetz did have it right in one part of her message: the relationship between the lab and sanctuary communities has dissolved. But for her to distort the conversation by making claims that the laboratory community disparages the quality of care at Chimp Haven and attacks Chimp Haven’s operations in a public message is irresponsible. It actually exemplifies her quote from earlier in the message: “It’s an unfortunate characterization of our organization, which is based less on facts and more on rhetoric and mischaracterizations.”

CH message image 9By not providing the original references, which clearly show that the laboratory community is focused on the issue of transferring the animals, not the quality of care at Chimp Haven, Spraetz permits most readers to take her statements at face value. This then leads to unproductive and at times hostile dialogue in forums like Facebook, which do nothing to promote chimpanzee welfare.

Furthermore, for Chimp Haven to do nothing to counter the hostile and false statements made by its supporters – and for Chimp Haven to even go so far as to “Like” comments on Facebook that falsely describe laboratory researchers as “torturing animals” and calls them “A-holes” – seems completely incompatible with the goal of public education. It is this behavior that raises additional questions. That includes questioning why, given their public education goals, Chimp Haven does not take the responsibility to provide accurate counter to wrong statements and accurate information to support education and dialogue.

CH response tweet imageAmanda M. Dettmer

Comments are closed.