Tag Archives: Chimpanzee

Do Politics Trump Chimpanzee Well-being? Questions Raised About Deaths of US Research Chimpanzees at Federally-Funded Sanctuary

A number of countries have ended some types of research with chimpanzees over the past decades.  For example, the US National Institutes of Health announced in November 2015 that it would no longer support many types of chimpanzee research. In Europe, the fate of former research chimpanzees has depended upon a mix of private wildlife parks and zoos for the animals’ care and management. The outcomes in term of chimpanzee health and survival remain relatively unknown.

Photo credit: Kathy West

Photo credit: Kathy West

In the US, the American public, via public entities, has legislated long-term support and substantial funding for the construction and maintenance of a facility dedicated to the exclusive care of chimpanzees retired from research. However, the outcomes for retired chimpanzees have been the source of public discussion and increasing concern.

This month, Dr. Cindy Buckmaster, writing in Lab Animal (Vol 45, No 7, July 2016) in an article addressed to the National Institutes of Health Director and titled: “Dr. Collins, please save our chimps!” shared a powerful and very sad story about some of the chimpanzees, asking:

“…why Dr. Collins would force these animals to leave everything they have known and everyone they love to go to a strange place, filled with strangers who cannot care for them nearly as well as their family at MDAKC! Does he know that 69% (9 out of 13) of the chimps already moved from MDAKC to his chosen sanctuary have died? Does he know that most of these treasured family members died within a few months of their arrival at the sanctuary? Does he know how they suffered? Does he know their stories? What about Maynard, who had ‘the best play face and laugh ever,’ and loved playing with his human and animal family at MDAKC? Does Dr. Collins know that Maynard had a fatal heart attack in the sanctuary the day after he was introduced to a new group of chimpan­zees? Does he care? I’d like to believe that he does, but I don’t know him. If I did, I would ask him to visit the MDAKC chimps so he would know, beyond doubt, that retirement in place is the most loving thing he could do for these animals. And I would beg him to save our chimps.”

maynard

Photo credit: Kathy West

labanjulyBuckmaster’s plea echoes those of others with concern that unrelenting political pressure on the NIH from groups opposed to animal research has resulted in decisions about chimpanzees that may not be in the animals’ best interests. In the aftermath of a series of decisions by the NIH over the past several years and increasing pressure by opponents of animal research, NIH has mandated the transfer of chimpanzees from their homes, established social groups, and dedicated caregivers to the Louisiana facility (See: Where should US chimpanzees live; Chimpanzee retirement: facts, myths and motivations; and What cost savings: a closer look a GAPCSA 2011).

The result of the transfers has included injuries to chimpanzees as they are introduced into new social groups and to deaths of animals. As Buckmaster notes, for one recent group of 13 relocated chimpanzees, the result was a nearly 70% death rate for animals moved from dedicated research facilities with long-time experience in caring for the animals to the Louisiana sanctuary. As a result of a decades-old ban on breeding, all sanctuaries and research facilities housing chimpanzees are largely populated by aging animals. Yet, the number of chimpanzees that have died upon transfer from research facility to sanctuary contrasts with an average death rate for chimpanzees due to advanced age, health, or other causes for a given facility, an expected average of  3-4 individuals per year (http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-16-392).

Bastrop chimps tool useResearch chimpanzees make up approximately 40% of the 1,650 chimpanzees estimated to live in the US, which includes chimpanzees not only in research facilities, but also sanctuaries, zoos, and other entertainment and breeding venues (see graph below). As recently announced, a large number of research chimpanzees housed at the New Iberia Research Center will retire to a private US sanctuary in northern Georgia.  The remaining US research chimpanzees are under 1/3rd of all chimpanzees housed in the US.

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The chimpanzee deaths at Chimp Haven have increasingly raised significant questions in the communities that are concerned with ape well-being These concerns are the subject of considerable private discussion in the chimpanzee research community by those who have cared for the animals for decades. Public expressions of concern have been more constrained, but are emerging, as are calls for a re-examination of where the chimpanzees should live. For example, Buckmaster says:

“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. The MD Anderson Keeling Center (MDAKC) in Texas has been home to the healthiest, happiest chimpanzees in America for decades. Their living quarters are comparable to, or better, than any US sanctuary, and none of these sanctuaries can compete with the level of care provided to chimpanzees at MDAKC. The MDAKC staff includes ten full-time veterinarians with a combined total of 92 years of experience caring for chimpanzees; 6 are specially boarded primate veterinarians, 3 are specially boarded veterinary pathologists, and 3 are specially certified to provide laser and acupuncture therapies to supplement traditional treatment regimens. There are also 22 specially trained, full-time technicians devoted to the chimps’ husbandry, health and behavioral needs, including 3 night technicians. MDAKC also has a full-service clinical pathology laboratory on site that allows for the immediate diagnosis and treatment of animals with health concerns. No US sanctuary is staffed or equipped to care for chimpanzees like MDAKC, not one! In fact, the sanctuary that the NIH is forcing us to send our chimpanzees to currently is not even equipped to carry out its own diagnostic lab work. This is concerning, given the advanced age of many research chimpanzees. Honestly, it would make more sense for Dr. Collins to retire the nation’s research chimps to MDAKC! 

Buckmaster’s comments should resonate with all of those concerned with ape well-being. The US public has provided considerable support meant to give these chimpanzees retirement care—on the assumption that such care would be in the animals’ best interests and protective of their health and well-being in retirement. The federal commitment to ape retirement is unusual compared to other countries.It also reflects broad support from the research community as well as the public.

Chimp Haven, the first and only federal chimpanzee sanctuary in the US, was founded in 1995 by a NIH-funded behavioral scientist Dr. Linda Brent along with a group of primatologists and business professionals. Through federal legislation in 2000—the Chimpanzees Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection Act (CHIMP Act; 42 U.S.C. §§ 287a-3a)—a national chimpanzee sanctuary system was established and NIH was formally mandated to provide life-time funding for the research chimpanzees it retires. As a result, in 2002 the NIH awarded Chimp Haven a 10-year, cost-sharing contract in which the NIH provided roughly $19 million in total costs for retired chimpanzee care, as well as $11.5 million for initial construction of the sanctuary. Six years later, in 2008, federal sanctuary standards were established (see Fed. Register 73 FR 60423, Oct. 10, 2008: Standards of Care for Chimpanzees Held in the Federally Supported Chimpanzee System). These standards apply to Chimp Haven, but do not necessarily extend to other sanctuaries.

CC-BY-NC-SAThus far, the federal investment in sanctuary retirement exceeds $30M. 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). A 2016 Government Accounting Office report determined that the range of per day care costs paid by NIH for a chimpanzee housed in the four facilities NIH supports was between a low of $41 and a high of $61, or between $15,000 – $22,000 per chimpanzee per year. Thus, NIH’s total support for care and maintenance of its 561 chimpanzees each year may be between $8,415,000 – $12,342,000.  By extension, over a 5 year period, the cost would be between $42,075,000 – $61,710,000. NIH pays 75% of costs and Chimp Haven is required to provide matching funds via private donations and fundraising. Of critical note, the cost for chimpanzee care will also likely vary significantly with increasing medical and care needs as the population ages.

http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-16-392In light of a complex mix of animal welfare, cost, and pragmatic concerns, a substantial number of NIH-owned research chimpanzees have not yet been transferred to Chimp Haven. The speed of transferring NIH-owned chimpanzees to sanctuaries remains a source of contention and was directly addressed by the 2016 GAO report. The report determined that: “Most of the 561 chimpanzees that NIH owned or supported as of January 15, 2016, had not been retired to Chimp Haven, which housed 179 NIH-owned chimpanzees at that time.” The agency concludes that NIH “has not developed or communicated a clear implementation plan to transfer the remaining chimpanzees, in part because of uncertainties about the available space at Chimp Haven. However, NIH has information about Chimp Haven’s current capacity and about anticipated space that will become available as a result of chimpanzee mortality. Absent a clear implementation plan, the four facilities that care for NIH-owned or NIH-supported chimpanzees may not have the information they need to care for the chimpanzees in the most cost-effective way that considers the timing of the transfers and the welfare needs of the chimpanzees. … Moreover, the absence of such a plan is inconsistent with federal internal control standards that call for effective communication of quality information.”

At the same time, active public discussions are continuing about whether NIH-owned chimpanzees should be retired in their current settings (in situ retirement), or if substantial funds for new construction should be made available in order to provide for their transfer to the federal sanctuary. Among the arguments for retiring the chimpanzees in their current homes is that the research facilities can offer the same level of care as the federal sanctuary, particularly given the new requirement for ethologically-relevant standards of care. From the animal welfare perspective, retirement in place would also have the advantage of protecting the chimpanzees—many of whom are aged— from the stress of relocation and disruption of stable social groups. For example, in an earlier interview about movement of chimpanzees, veterinarian and director of the MD Anderson Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine, Dr. Christian Abee:

“praised Chimp Haven’s facilities, but he said the stress of moving can take a fatal toll on older, more frail chimpanzees. Of the 13 chimps his facility had transferred this year to Chimp Haven, four died or were euthanized within the first three months, he said. Chimpanzees, an endangered species native to West and Central Africa, can live to 60 years in captivity. 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” (Walters & Knowles, 2015).

CC-BY-NC-SAFrom the perspective of the individual animal’s health and well-being, the type of facility in which he or she lives is only relevant insofar as it affects the provision, stability, and type of care, housing, and other aspects of daily life. In other words, whether the facility is a sanctuary, zoo, or research institute may be irrelevant if the standards for care, housing, and living conditions are substantively similar across settings. Ultimately, from the available data and the chimpanzee deaths that have occurred following their relocation to the federal sanctuary, it may appear that NIH and others advocating for transfer of the animals from their current homes and social groups to the sanctuary may be making a mistake. It is a mistake that is counterproductive to the animals’ welfare. It is one that appears to prioritize political considerations and appeasement of opponents of animal research over the interests of the animals themselves. In short, political expediency seems to be trumping animal welfare for chimpanzees and this serves no one well.

Speaking of Research

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Portions of this post are excerpted from Bennett, A.J. & Panicker, S. (in press). Broader Impacts: International Implications and Integrative Ethical Consideration of Policy Decisions about US Chimpanzee Research. Am J Primatology.

Community Outreach: Talking about the animals

Many of us that work in biomedical research often are confronted with the dreaded question: “What do you do for a living?” The anxiety of the inevitable conversation about animal research can be palpable. One may ask, “Do I tell them the truth and get into a debate about the ethics of animal research? Or do I tell them that I am an accountant, thus avoiding any further conversation about my career?” Although distorting the truth works, but it does a great disservice to all those involved. How will people really understand animal research unless accurate, balanced information is provided? Historically, the majority of the information available is from science journals or biased animal rights groups. As a result, the bulk of the information is skewed to paint animal research as a vile, unethical institution that cares little about the animals. On the other hand, science journals describe the science, written for scientists. How does the lay person get that accurate information? That accurate information comes from you, the one that works in the industry.

It is important to note that I do not speak for all individuals in this field, but the sentiment behind my words is shared by the vast majority. Those of us that have chosen to work in this field have done so for very specific reasons:  Some of us do it to be a part of human and/or animal medical advances; others do it because they feel passionate about animal welfare and, of course, there will always be a few people who do it solely because they like having a steady job with a steady paycheck. Fortunately, the vast majority of people in the industry do not subscribe to the latter reason.

The fact that many people disapprove of animal research, but nearly all benefit from it, indicates that most people do not truly understand how biomedical research works. From food and drug production to vaccines, surgical and disease treatments, humans have benefited from animal research for hundreds of years. The sheer shock that the public has in reaction to animal research stories indicates that more education is needed. For example, the A.L.S. ice bucket challenge was all the rage last year, yet some people complained they did not want their charitable dollars to go towards animal research. The fact that some people did not know that all medical testing and treatments have or will go through animal testing before use in humans demonstrates the lack of education regarding the system. It is now time to explain it. When it comes to public opinion it is important to understand that people’s perception of complicated and controversial subjects is dramatically affected by the available information to which they are exposed. We can thank the biased animal rights groups for providing the bulk of the misinformation about research that exists today. They have had years to twist the truth and present their information in a way that immediately causes negative emotional responses in those that are subjected to this information. That is the same stance those of us in research must take. We must talk about what we do, but it should be made personal. This is the only way the lay person will be able to relate, at the personal level.

When I think of a personal story that describes the environment of research as well as the people and animals, I think of Duncan. Duncan was a chimpanzee I had the honor to know while working as a veterinary technician. Since he didn’t have a family group, he had to be housed singly, along with three other lone males. We were tasked to give them a little extra attention. Although I spent time with all of the males, Duncan was, by far, my favorite. I spent many hours over the years sitting next to his enclosure and talking to him. Of course, he would nod and grunt at me, not allowing me to feel too crazy speaking to an animal. One day, Duncan became sick. He had saculitis (inflammation of his air sacs) that was not responding to treatment.   After weeks of diligent care, Duncan succumbed to his disease. I was holding him and petting him the day he passed. As he lay breathing his last breath, I looked around me. All I saw was a family crying over the loss of a member. From care techs to managers and veterinarians, we all cried together. The loss of this amazing creature shook everyone to the core. This pain can only be compared to the loss of a human loved one. I felt great comfort in knowing that we all mourned Duncan and that we, as the caregivers that did more than just feed him, we loved him.   It is with stories like this, that the true face of biomedical research can be seen, from great love and compassion. These are the stories we need to tell.

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Creative Commons BY-NC-SA: kathyweststudios@gmail.com

Once an individual is empowered to speak up about research and tell their story, as I was through Duncan, the next step is to determine the outlet and the audience. Anyone can get involved with outreach; locally or nationally. Some examples are: Institute of Animal Technology (IAT), American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS), technical schools, local career days, contributions to web sites publishing articles about science and, of course, casual conversation. Please see the end of this article for links to various avenues for outreach.

Regardless of the platform for outreach, the target audience should always be considered. Formulate your discussion, lecture, presentation or article around the individual that will be receiving the information. If the bulk of your audience is not science based, avoid scientific jargon- speak in plain terms. Most importantly, explain how your work has or may improve medicine as if you are speaking to someone with no knowledge of the inner-workings of research.

Now that you have a story to tell, you may ask yourself: Why should I speak out? The answer is clear.   The people with the best knowledge of the inner workings of research are the best source of information. It is time that the research community counteracts the years animal rights groups have had to speak against research. The best way to counteract those effects is to be open about what we do and how we do it. We should inform the public by providing balanced information. Let them make their own decisions but with correct information, instead of skewed rhetoric that serves only to fuel the extreme views that all animal research is bad and managed by heartless people that do not care about animals or society. Each one of us should be proud of our careers. It is time to show your pride and tell the world what we do and why we do it. We, the research community, are in favor of ethical treatment of animals for biomedical research and would prefer a world where disease did not need to be studied. We would also prefer a world where there was effective and appropriate alternatives for animal research, however, none are currently available or reliable to use for all research. Until that day comes, we will continue to provide the best care we can- not only because it is the law but because it is the right thing to do.

James Champion

Speaking of Research accepts guest posts from researchers, technicians, veterinarians, and those involved in outreach. If you are interested in writing a post for us, please contact us.

Where should US chimpanzees live?

Understanding what research is, what it means, and how chimpanzees are cared for in captive settings matters to decisions, the animals, public interests, and preventing unintended consequences.

Photo credit: Kathy West

Photo credit: Kathy West

Ongoing decisions and news coverage about US chimpanzee research have provoked continuing debate and raised questions about the best course of action for the animals, science, and public interests. Like many complex, emotional, topics the arguments and language that have surrounded the discussion have been polarized and have left many with impressions that are less than accurate. In turn, thoughtful and serious consideration has often been stymied.

One of the primary areas of confusion surrounds what exactly is meant by the term “research.” Another is what standards of care best provide for chimpanzees’ welfare. Here we cover some common questions about chimpanzee research in the US and the implications and consequences of decisions about chimpanzees living in dedicated research facilities. We also highlight and compare standards for care, external oversight, and public transparency for chimpanzees living in different settings in the US. We share two documents that provide details about the many scientific discoveries published over the past several years from scientists working in dedicated chimpanzee research facilities. One is a list of over 175 representative publications from recent years. The great majority of these scientific publications report discoveries from behavioral, cognitive, and neurobehavioral research. The second document highlights media coverage that demonstrates public interest in these discoveries and studies.

Pdfs here:  Chimpanzee Research Representative Publications (2007-2015)  and Chimpanzee Media List

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1) Isn’t chimpanzee research in the US finished?

On November 18, 2015, the US National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins issued a public statement that NIH will no longer support biomedical research on chimpanzees. While the statement (and ensuing media coverage – here, here, here) clearly references biomedical research, what is unclear is the impact of this decision on non-invasive behavioral and cognitive research with chimpanzees. Much, if not all, of the media coverage on the issue of chimpanzee retirement has focused on research with chimpanzees for developing vaccines for Ebola and studying infectious disease. At present, it does appear that NIH’s decisions will truncate infectious disease research with chimpanzees.

Infectious disease research is not, however, the entirety of chimpanzee research. It is important, but also a relatively small part. Thus, conclusions about the need, value, or future of infectious disease research should not be mistaken for conclusions about chimpanzee research itself. In fact, in the public discussions and headlines about NIH’s decisions, very little attention has been paid to the enormous amount of non-invasive and minimally-invasive research that has contributed to new discoveries and knowledge about behavior, cognition, genetics, social, emotional, and neural processes in chimpanzees. Such research is vibrant, ongoing, and makes substantial contributions, as is evidenced by the many cognitive and behavioral studies that dominate this representative list of over 175 scientific publications over the past several years (Chimpanzee Research Representative Publications (2007-2015)

The work also has broad support. Public fascination and support of research that helps us better understand these animals is illustrated by the plethora of news stories in just the last several years, since the initial NIH decision on retiring chimpanzees from research (Chimpanzee Media List).  Furthermore, NIH—as well as NSF and other agencies and foundations—continue to fund this type of chimpanzee research. Last, but certainly not least, much—if not all—of the behavioral and cognitive research with chimpanzees meets the principles and criteria elucidated by the Institute of Medicine panel that reviewed the need and value of chimpanzee research. The panel’s conclusions were accepted by NIH, and their recommendations are reflected in ongoing behavioral and cognitive studies with chimpanzees.

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2) Why does chimpanzee behavioral and psychological research matter?

A psychologist who works with chimpanzees was once approached at a conference by an animal-rights activist who heatedly accused the researcher of being a terrible person for confining chimpanzees and doing research with them.  The activist argued that chimpanzees were too smart to be kept in captivity.  He argued that they could learn language, mathematics, had theory of mind, and showed sophisticated cognitive skills and social skills.  The researcher asked this activist how he knew these things, and whether he had worked with chimpanzees or had ever been around them.  No, was the response, but the activist had seen all of these things demonstrated in videos and documentaries, and he countered that everyone knew how smart chimps are.  The researcher then asked him exactly where he thought those documentaries were filmed, and explained that nearly all of those amazing capacities were discovered and documented with chimpanzees studied, and in many cases nurtured through decades of excellent care, in research facilities in the US.

This discussion highlights the point that it is exactly the behavioral research that is becoming difficult, or impossible, to do in this country that originally led to the public’s recognition and support as they came to see chimpanzees as being worthy of protection.  If such behavioral research ceases to exist with captive chimpanzee groups, or only occurs in settings in which longitudinal cognitive and behavioral science is secondary to other management aims, we will lose the chance to learn more about the mental lives of our primate cousins.  Imagine that 50 years ago all chimpanzee behavioral research stopped in laboratories.  If it had, chimpanzees likely would have been zoo curiosities and little more.  Ape language, numerical cognition, metacognition, bartering, reciprocity, episodic memory, and other similar capacities would never have been demonstrated. Considering that makes one wonder whether, in that reality and in absence hallmark demonstrations of chimpanzees’ human-like intelligence, present-day activists would even care about chimpanzees in captivity.

The success of behavioral research in highlighting the social and cognitive sophistication of chimpanzees (and, more recently, the complementary neuroimaging data that show even more similarities between ape and human cognition) has become its own worst nightmare rather than a natural justification for asking new questions of these animals.  What we have learned has changed the way that the public and scientists view and treat animals. And it demonstrably has changed perspectives, policies, decisions, and care practices. But it should not result in a blanket prohibition against research with animals. Nor should it be used to support a default conclusion that research captivity is inherently bad, and sanctuary housing is inherently good. Both restrict the apes for their protection and the public’s, and both provide environments that support the animals’ physical and psychological well-being. But it would seem that the best place to ensure that chimpanzees are optimally cared for would be a place that is dedicated to studying chimpanzee behavior and mental health—a dedicated research facility.

If—on the hand—the ultimate result of new discoveries is to truncate research, the costs will be severe not only to our knowledge about these animals’ mental lives, but also to the perceived value of the animals to future generations of humans who will be faced with the imminent extinction of wild great apes and will have to address that threat.

CC-BY-NC-SA3) Can’t behavioral, cognitive, genomic, and other minimally-invasive research be done in zoos and sanctuaries?

Zoos and sanctuaries have always played an important role in studying the cognition of great apes, and other species.  And, that will continue.  But, it would be patently false to argue that many of the discoveries of sophisticated chimpanzee cognitive abilities would have been possible in those settings.  To give just one example, the ape-language studies with chimpanzees all were undertaken in traditional “laboratories” and often under the support of federal grants to universities.  Those projects showed that rearing conditions were critical to demonstrating (and instantiating) the highest degrees of language and communication skills in apes. This research was done in laboratories, not zoos, sanctuaries, or field sites.

Most critically, the research could only have been done in laboratories—in settings where researchers could control the animals’ experiences and maximize the chimpanzees’ opportunities to learn; where the apes’ lifelong health and participation could be ensured, and where researchers could make use of the chimpanzees’ natural curiosity and motivation; and where the chimpanzees’ full-time job could be learning and partnering with researchers in the science. Those facilities, some of which still exist, are research laboratories, and so those who advocate against laboratory chimpanzee research are advocating against the very places that have defined the (current) upper limits of ape cognitive abilities.  To cease research with chimpanzees in laboratories would cease those research programs and others that are currently funded to push even further our knowledge of chimpanzee cognition.

4) What is the difference between standards of care for chimpanzees in dedicated research facilities, in zoos, and in sanctuaries in the US?

The picture below shows chimpanzees in four settings. Where are they?  Two are current research facilities, one is an NIH-funded sanctuary, and one is a publicly-funded zoo. The settings look remarkably similar because they are in many ways. And to the chimpanzees, the sign over the door – research, zoo, sanctuary—doesn’t matter, as long as it doesn’t affect the animals’ care, housing, and welfare.

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.

The question then, is what kind of housing and care matters to the animals’ well-being. In fact, the majority of research chimpanzees in the US live in settings that are similar. The facilities provide outdoor housing, including natural ground 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.

The standards that govern housing and care of chimpanzees vary, as does the level of external oversight and public transparency. The figure below shows aspects of that variation in terms of federal, public, non-voluntary requirements. Dedicated research facilities that receive NIH or other federal funding are required, by federal law, to provide care and housing exceeds the standards specified by the Animal Welfare Act. By contrast, zoos and other facilities licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) must only meet the AWA standards. Any facility registered or licensed by the USDA is subject to oversight by the federal agency. Furthermore, records of registration, inspection, or investigation of complaints are available to the general public via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. For NIH-funded research facilities, additional oversight and public transparency is provided via the NIH’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW).

Private sanctuaries are neither required to be licensed by the USDA, nor required to meet AWA standards. It is important to note, however, that some sanctuaries voluntarily elect to be licensed by the USDA as exhibitors. Private sanctuaries do not fall under the type or extent of public oversight or transparency as do dedicated publicly-funded research facilities. That does not mean that the care provided in private sanctuary facilities is insufficient; but it does mean that the public has little venue to ensure the animals are well cared for and virtually no means to evaluate evidence of that care, request investigation, or receive information.

One of the primary points often offered in response to observation of this regulatory unevenness is that there are also accreditation agencies and programs. It is true that each type of facility has voluntary, private accreditation agencies. For many dedicated research facilities, this is AAALAC accreditation. For many zoos, it is the American Zoological Association (AZA) accreditation. For many sanctuaries, it is accreditation via the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance (NAPSA) or the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS).

The question for the public, however, is the extent to which standards of care, external oversight, and maintenance of records and information should be left to private, rather than public, agencies. For animals and facilities that are privately owned and administered, this may be entirely appropriate. But for animals and facilities that are public – as are NIH’s chimpanzees and chimpanzee research – it is the public standards, oversight, and transparency that ensure the animals’ care and the public interests. Indeed, when those facilities also support research, additional levels of public oversight exist in the form of peer review (which formally includes review of ethical treatment of animals) when this research is published or submitted for grant support.

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Photo credit:  Kathy West

Summary

In summary, regardless of headlines about the end of US chimpanzee research, there is clearly ongoing work that is humanely-conducted, ethical, of value, and consistent with public interests. The critical questions that remain are about how to best protect the animals and to balance scientific discovery that benefits chimpanzees, other animals, humans, and the environment.

Allyson J. Bennett, Michael J. Beran, Sarah F. Brosnan, William D. Hopkins, Charles R. Menzel, and David A. Washburn

The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their institutions. The authors are psychological scientists whose research includes studies of chimpanzees and other primates.

 

 

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.

PetaLetter_Collins

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:  https://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:  https://speakingofresearch.com/2011/12/08/what-cost-savings-a-closer-look-at-the-great-ape-protection-and-cost-savings-act-of-2011/

https://speakingofresearch.com/2012/12/11/animal-rights-bill-under-consideration-in-the-senate/

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

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