Chimps’ Lab Days Numbered
Chimps’ Lab Days Numbered
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In a dome-shaped outdoor cage, a dozen chimpanzees are hooting. The hair on their shoulders is sticking straight up.
"That’s piloerection," a sign of emotional arousal, says Dr. Dana Hasselschwert, head of veterinary sciences at the New Iberia Research Center.
She tells a visitor to keep his distance. The chimps tend to throw pebbles — or worse — when they get excited.
Chimps’ similarity to humans makes them valuable for research, and at the same time inspires intense sympathy. To research scientists, they may look like the best chance to cure terrible diseases. But to many other people, they look like relatives behind bars.
Biomedical research on chimps helped produce a vaccine for hepatitis B, and is aimed at one for hepatitis C, which infects 170 million people worldwide, but there has long been an outcry against the research as cruel and unnecessary. Now, because of a major push by advocacy organizations, a decision to stop such research in the United States could come within a year. As it is, the United States is one of only two countries that conduct invasive research on chimpanzees. The other is the central African nation of Gabon.
"This is a very different moment than ever before," said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States. "Now is the time to get these chimps out of invasive research and out of the labs."
John VandeBerg, director of the Southwest National Primate Research Center in San Antonio, one of six labs that house chimpanzees, agreed that this is "a crucial moment." Any of several efforts by opponents "could be the cause of a halt in all medical research with chimpanzees," he said.
The Humane Society of the United States and other groups pushed the National Institutes of Health to commission a report on the usefulness of chimps in research, due this year. The society also joined with the Jane Goodall Institute, the Wildlife Conservation Society and others to petition the federal Fish and Wildlife Service to declare captive chimps endangered, as wild chimps already are, giving them new protections. A decision is due by next September.
In addition, the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act, now in Congress, would ban invasive research on all great apes. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., who is one of the bill’s sponsors, says it would save taxpayers $30 million a year spent on chimpanzees owned by the government.
Pacelle says that invasive research on chimpanzees is expensive, that there are alternatives and that chimps in research studies suffer painful procedures and isolation.