Saturday, March 31, 2012

Excuse my bitchiness, but I’ve just gotta say…

This is going to be one of those blog posts that ticks off just about everyone, in one way or another. I’m in that kind of a bitchy mood, and I’ve decided to pull all of my pet peeves into one big dump…
In his latest essay, Research Chimpanzees May Get a Break, Frans de Waal argues against using chimps in bioinvasive research. It was a good article. Imagine how much better it could be, how absolutely earth shattering among the primate research industry it would be, if he announced that he would stop using captive apes for HIS research. Alternatives exist to studying the behavior of chimps in unnatural captive settings. Just look at how Jane Goodall did it in the past. Or how today’s generation, led by Brian Hare, is studying apes in the Congo. At the very least, I could take de Waal more seriously if he urged his colleagues at the Yerkes Primate Research Center to let Wenka retire in peace, among her old friends at the Chimp Haven sanctuary.
I got the strangest fundraising letter from the Great Ape Trust. They want money to change into a "sanctuary," but they plan to open the facilities to the public AND apply for research grants. I don't get it. Do they want to be a sanctuary, a zoo, or a research lab? If the disorganized letter is any indication, they don't have a clue. The new name is "bonobo HOPE Great Ape Trust Sanctuary." (Officially, with USDA, it is the Iowa Primate Research Sanctuary.) I'm surprised it doesn't include "and Exposition." I’ve been hearing ominous rumors about caregivers leaving, crazy arguments between high-level leadership, and even accusations of deliberate harm inflicted on the baby bonobo. Personally, I haven’t supported the place since they bred their bonobos, because I don’t think research laboratories are proper places for apes, and I certainly don’t want to see more apes destined to spend their lives performing feats for humans. After getting this letter, I am convinced this unaccredited facility is a disaster-in-waiting for those poor bonobos ‒ until someone gets smart and puts the bonobos in an actual sanctuary. (To follow developments at Great Ape Trust, see our Bonobo Hope post.)
Gulf Breeze Zoo should be shunned for their exploitation of a baby gorilla who was deliberately inbred between half siblings. After the birth, the zoo announced that the natural mother rejected her baby. To compound their misjudgment, instead of finding an adoptive gorilla mother, zookeepers are raising the baby – and the zoo is pitching the “human caregiver” story to the press in an attempt to increase gate revenues. Respectable zoos follow breeding advice from the gorilla species survival plan, they definitely don’t inbreed, they do everything they can to keep the baby with the mother, and they find an adoptive gorilla “auntie” if the mother won’t accept the baby. And they don’t use their failures to promote their zoo. Gulf Breeze Zoo’s actions are obscene on so many levels.
Many people can express their aggravations much more poignantly than I can. One Facebook post that I agree with 2,000 percent was from the director of Orangutan Land Trust, Michelle Desilets, about the conflagration in Sumatra, where hundreds of orangutans are dying in a fire set by workers at a palm oil plantation. “A little moan from me,” Michelle writes. “I cannot bear when people reduce the tragedy of what is happening to orangutans in Tripa to the regret that ‘our children and grandchildren will not be able to see them in the wild.’ Orangutans should be allowed to exist for their own right, not to serve humans. To me, this kind of statement reeks of self-absorption...” (Go to the Facebook page, Save Tripa, to find ways that you can help save orangutans in their own right.)
And speaking of the deaths of the last remaining Sumatran orangutans… When are we ALL going to get serious about rejecting palm oil in our cookies and candy and other foods? It is clear that the farce known as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil has devolved into a greenwash that would be funny if it wasn’t so pitiful. There is no enforcement, and we now know that in a country (like Indonesia) where official corruption is the rule, there is no way to make palm oil “sustainable.” Zoos that were trying to educate visitors to use products made with RSPO-certified palm oil gave it a good try. I doubt they will ever change their messages, to just say no to palm oil, since palm oil user Mars Candy is such a major business partner to a lot of them. Fortunately, consumers don’t have to listen to organizations that still chant the sustainable palm oil fantasy. We can change our buying habits, although it is probably too late for the Sumatran orangutans. (We still have to worry about the orangutans on Borneo, who are next in line for elimination.) So can we all just stop the charade? No palm oil, PERIOD. And please sign this petition, asking the Indonesian president to drop the country’s pretense of concern and actually take action to protect orangutan habitat.
Okay, that ends my bitch session for today.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Do chimps need their own version of Planned Parenthood?

Sometimes when I’m reading, and two completely different news streams converge, my brain’s light bulb switches on. It’s either a brilliant concept, or a senior moment. You can be the judge.
Like millions of women in America, I am appalled by the war on women, and particularly as it is playing out against Planned Parenthood and contraception. Planned Parenthood helped me in the 1970s when I was in college and student health services did not cover the pill. The organization even helped when I needed emergency surgery. So I know, personally, how much Planned Parenthood contributes to women’s health care, and I am paying close attention to efforts to defund it.
I also see a lot of coverage in the news about unexpected chimpanzee pregnancies. Chimp Haven, a Louisiana sanctuary, announced an “unexpected Valentine”  when 29-year-old Flora had a baby, thanks to an anonymous suitor whose vasectomy evidently reversed itself. A couple days later, the sanctuary announced that 42-year-old Ginger is also unexpectedly pregnant. Reputable sanctuaries do not breed their animals, and Chimp Haven is definitely a sanctuary of the highest caliber. They have put their females on birth control pills (human pills, by the way, for those of you who may not realize just how similar we are to the chimpanzees) until their males get re-vasectomized.
Maryland Zoo in Baltimore recently announced that two of their chimpanzees are expectingJoice’s pregnancy was planned, the zoo reports, but it is silent on the why 21-year-old Bunny is pregnant. While Joice’s pregnancy was recommended by the North American Chimpanzee Species Survival Plan, the accredited zoos’ committee to advance chimpanzee care, Bunny’s impending motherhood may be more problematic although I may be more nervous about this than her caregivers. Bunny is very deaf, and is a low ranking female in the group. She has never had a baby before, unlike Joice.
In my blog a year ago, I expressed my hope that zoos would stop breeding chimpanzees in captivity. Steve Ross, the chair of the chimpanzee SSP, responded to my concerns.
“The Chimpanzee SSP manages the population to have just a few births a year,” Dr. Ross explained. “Lately that number has been about three chimps annually, and we haven't had a baby since last summer.”
“We have kept the birth rate purposefully low, as we have been making a concerted effort to open up space for chimps from the entertainment and pet industry. Working with Project ChimpCARE, we have brought 17 ex-pet and ex-actor chimps into the population in the past five years or so, including 14 ex-actors from a movie trainer’s facility last year [2010].”
(Maryland Zoo was one of the zoos who provided a home for a couple of the ex-entertainers.)
New Iberia Research Center breeds chimpanzees and
supplies very young chimps to the NIH's National Institute
of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for hepatitis C studies.
Beyond the world of sanctuaries and zoos, the chimpanzee research industry is deliberately breeding babies for the sole intent of making new research animals. The disgusting New Iberia Research Center illegally used NIH-owned (and taxpayer supported) chimps to breed 137 infant chimps between 2000 and 2009. (See Breeding Contempt, Nature Magazine.)
So, you may ask, what the heck does any of this baby chimp news have to do with Planned Parenthood? Aside from the evident problem of human and chimp girls forgetting to take their pill in the morning, my dilemma comes down to the question of “choice.”
I am absolutely on the side of choice for humans. I am more conflicted about chimpanzee “choice,” if such a concept exists. Who am I to say that captive chimpanzees should be denied the joy of motherhood? On the other hand, would a captive chimpanzee choose to bring a child into a world of captivity? In my opinion, the answer would likely be different for different situations. Having a baby in a restful sanctuary may be a joyous occasion, even if it was accidental. Giving birth, and having your children repeatedly and forcefully taken away from you in a laboratory setting, would be traumatic beyond words. Would research chimpanzees, would any chimpanzee, choose birth control if they could?
Perhaps just as central to the question of choice: Whose choice is it? Chimp or human?
As always, in the world of great apes, it is the human choice that reigns supreme, and many complex factors go into that choice.
Maybe asking for a Planned Parenthood for chimpanzees is silly. I don’t know what to feel when I see a picture of a cute baby chimpanzee, knowing that chimp will live under unnatural and human-dictated captivity all her life. My emotions are jumbled, and a Planned Parenthood-type approach, that would consider the reproductive and emotional needs of the chimp above all, would help me and would, most importantly, help our sisters in captivity…

UPDATE, Aug 24, 2012: According to a report by Meredith Wadman of Nature Magazine, the NIH found New Iberia Primate Center not guilty of breeding chimpanzees. Not because they didn't breed chimps despite the moratorium -- they did -- but because they didn't directly bill Uncle Sam for the chimps' care. So Orwellian.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Senate schedules, then postpones, then holds a hearing on Great Ape Protection Act

UPDATE JULY 29, 2012: The committee amended the bill and sent it to the full Senate. Keep up on the action at the Chimp Trainer's Daughter page on the Great Ape Protection Act.

UPDATE, APRIL 24: The subcommittee hearing for the Great Ape Protection Act was held this morning. No new ground was covered, in that NIH just reiterated what they've been saying for the last several months. However, it turns out that Dr. Wasserman, on Panel 2,is a chimp advocate, although he wasn't identified as a representative of any one group -- which is probably a good thing. (See this Baltimore Sun article on Wasserman's efforts to stop testing in primates.) He was good, and knew his stuff. I was pleasantly surprised by Senator Cardin's effort to get NIH to provide legislative language that would align S.810 with the IOM recommendations, so that the recommendations would have the effect of law rather than be subject to the whims of regulators. Let's see how long Sen. Cardin waits for NIH's response...

UPDATE, APRIL 20: The Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife has scheduled a hearing for April 24. No ape advocates are on the panel. An NIH official will be testifying. 

UPDATE, MARCH 9: the subcommittee posted a notice that the hearing is postponed. This message was posted on the subcommittee's website:
Due to the Senate schedule, this will be rescheduled for a later date.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife, will hold a legislative hearing to consider S. 810, Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act of 2011, among other bills dealing with wildlife conservation and protection.  
The hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, March 13, at 2:30 in room 406 of the Dirksen Building on Capitol Hill. Witnesses invited to testify: Daniel M. Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Dr. James M. Anderson, from the National Institutes of Health; Dr. Douglas B. Inkley, National Wildlife Federation; Dr. Martin Wasserman, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine; and Dr. Greg Schildwachter, Watershed Results LLC.
Ape advocates should contact members of the subcommittee if they would like their Senator to ask any pertinent questions. The subcommittee members are: Ben Cardin (MD), Max Baucus (MT), Frank Lautenberg (NJ), Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Tom Udall (NM), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Jeff Sessions (AL), John Barrasso (WY), David Vitter (LA), Mike Crapo (ID), and Lamar Alexander (TN).

Link to subcommittee announcement.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Can you hear the song of the ape?

There is truly a divide in this county, and I’m not talking about red states and blue states… There is a growing abyss between people who understand the unique magnificence of chimpanzees as chimpanzees, and those who continue to seek to humanize the apes for the mere benefit that accrues to themselves.
A brilliant new book, The Song of the Ape: Understanding the Languages of Chimpanzees by Andrew Halloran, brought this realization home to me, with a figurative slap on the back by Higgy, the alpha male who takes center stage for most of Halloran’s story. (If there is any doubt about the wonder of chimpanzees, in and of themselves, Higgy removes the final shreds.)
Halloran leads his readers through an exploration of chimpanzee language, using the stories of Higgy, Hank, Little Mama, and others. When he gave me that connection to real chimps who faced real challenges, I was finally able to make more sense of the language debate that took off with Washoe and Nim and Koko. Of course! Researchers back then (and even still today) were judging the apes on whether they could “speak” a language that we were imposing on them, rather than appreciating chimpanzees for the natural language they have spoken for millennia. Pant hoots are not, it appears, just noises.
Halloran has a sly way of inserting science into an absorbing and, at times, emotionally difficult story. Using a timeline starting in the 1930s, he translates peer-reviewed research into storytelling, weaving threads of chimpanzee life as it exists in the wild, in private ownership, and in accredited animal facilities. The graceful and brutal true stories gave me a better understanding of the commonalities that make chimpanzees so uniquely wonderful. I also came away with a deeper appreciation of the tragedy that comes from “humanizing” chimpanzees as pets, entertainers, and research subjects.
My aunt and her chimp, in the
1950s. We didn't know, then,
how wrong it was to turn chimps
in mini-humans. Some people still
don't get it.
Of course, I didn’t have that appreciation for most of my 60 years on earth. Like millions of baby boomer kids, I adored the funny chimpanzee shows staged at the Detroit Zoo. I was tickled by cute videos showing chimpanzees in costume, doing tricks. I was thrilled by my aunt’s chimpanzee, all dressed up for entertaining kids at birthday parties. I wasn’t alone in my misunderstanding, I know. The book’s timeline gently walks the reader through discoveries by primatologists, especially since the 1970s, that need to inform today’s debates on chimpanzee issues.
Halloran explains it better than I can:
“In the same way that we assume a culture in another part of the world would function better if its people adopted our own cultural traits, we assume that chimpanzees are members of a more relevant species if they act and communicate just like a human. This is why we put them in films, make them learn sign language, watch them ice-skate in circuses, and make them dress up for tea parties in zoos. This is why we are surprised when, in the end, they don’t quite act like little humans. This is why we are shocked when a chimpanzee gets violently aggressive toward a human caretaker. This is why we are disappointed when we realize that a chimpanzee really can’t use sign language in any meaningful way. However, when we look at chimpanzees relating to each other and their own given environments, we see the miracle of a species inheriting, teaching, and surviving by learned behaviors that fit their own situations.”
It seems that every week we get new evidence of the great divide between people who appreciate the miracles of chimpanzees, and people who want a chimp for their own fulfillment, without a real recognition of the chimpanzee’s needs.
To her immense credit, Charla Nash is pursuing a legal case against the state of Connecticut for failing to protect citizens from a known dangerous animal ‒ the “pet” chimpanzee Travis. Charla is the woman went to the aid of her friend Sandra, who was trying to stop a rampage by Sandra’s 200-pound pet chimpanzee. Travis ripped off Charla’s face and hands before he was finally stopped and killed. Connecticut’s attorney general is trying to prevent the lawsuit, on the grounds that state government only has to protect the “general public,” not individuals. Is that really how society works? Government can know a danger exists, deliberately does nothing to protect innocent people, and then turns its collective head when that predictable tragedy happens?
In Missouri, private chimpanzee owners are up in arms about a relatively innocuous bill, SB 666, that would require them to get a permit. It seems the pet owners and breeders like the freedom to exploit animals. Once they’ve “paid for the chimps, paid for the cages, for the property…” they have fulfilled their responsibilities, they assert. Do we imagine that they will be able to give a life back to someone like Charla, once the predictable happens again?
In both instances, the chimpanzee owners do not understand, as Halloran shows conclusively, that primates cannot survive - in any humane sense of the word - without socialization with their own species. If they did understand that, they would never breed them to sell as entertainers or pets, to live as pseudo-humans. And if you don't understand and respect the animals you breed and sell, you are putting communities and the animals at risk.
The Song of the Ape, thankfully, ends on high note. (Spoiler alert: Just when I was about to start yelling at the book, to stop a chimpanzee war between groups affiliated with Higgy and Hank, Hank’s group is transferred to Lincoln Park Zoo. It seems that zoo always comes through for chimpanzees!) We leave the intertwined stories knowing the chimps better, understanding the issues on a deeper level and, thanks to helpful footnotes throughout, with an enticing pile of suggested readings.
And, thanks to Halloran, I can even speak some chimpanzee! Now if I could just figure out why private chimpanzee owners cannot hear the song of the ape...