Groups Push for End to Chimp Testing in US Labs

Julie Mitchell

While research scientists have long supported the use of chimpanzees in labs for biomedical and other medical research, human rights organizations are calling for an end to the use of chimps in U.S. labs.  In fact, the United States is one of only two countries still confining and conducting invasive research on chimps; the other is the African nation of Gabon.  Japan, New Zealand, the European Union, and Australia have all banned or strictly limited their use.

chimps in labs2 Scientists say the fact that chimps’ genetic makeup is so similar to humans makes the animals invaluable when it comes to researching specific diseases.  Testing on chimps has contributed to the discovery of hepatitis C and helped to develop vaccines against hepatitis B and polio.  Yet a  fact sheet from the Jane Goodall Institute states that chimpanzees have actually been found to be poor models for human disease research because small variations in their DNA accounts for differences in the ways diseases behave and affect the different species.

At issue are the often cruel and abusive conditions under which many lab chimps are kept.  According to an article in the New York Times, there are about 1,000 chimps living in research facilities across the U.S. including at the New Iberia Research Center, part of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.  The center houses 360 chimps, 120 of which belong to the National Institute of Health and 360 that belong to the university, in addition to more than 6,000 other primates.  The facility has faced accusations of chimp mistreatment in the past, and violations of animal care standards were found and corrected.  The Coulston Foundation, a biomedical research lab in New Mexico that runs tests on chimps, was cited for repeated violations of the Animal Welfare Act before it was closed in 2002. 

chimps in labs3 According to the Humane Society of the United States, chimps used in research are often subjected to painful procedures and kept in cages or concrete cells in isolation.  Naturally social animals, chimps often become angry and depressed when separated from other chimps.

The Humane Society, along with the Jane Goodall Institute, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and other groups petitioned the federal Fish and Wildlife Service to declare captive chimps endangered, as are their cousins in the wild. A decision is due by next September.  And last April a bipartisan group of group of senators introduced the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act of 2011 that would prohibit invasive research on great apes, including chimpanzees. 

At a press conference showing support for the reintroduction of the legislation (a similar act was introduced in 2009), Michael Markarian, chief operating officer of the Humane Society said, “The vast majority of federally owned chimpanzees in laboratories are not being used in active research protocols but rather have been warehoused for decades wasting millions of taxpayers dollars year after year.  Passing this bill would not only save federal dollars by sending chimpanzees to be cared for in sanctuaries, which are more cost effective that labs, but would also spare these highly intelligent and social creatures from isolation and harm.”

The Humane Society says that it can cost up to $60 per day to maintain a laboratory chimp.  The U.S. government spends approximately $20-$25 million annually on lab chimps’ care and invasive research.

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  • Posted on Nov. 24, 2011. Listed in:

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