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.

1 comment:

  1. I don't know why, but people often seem more willing to share their thoughts on Facebook rather than on a blog, even in reaction to the blog. I would like to share part of a FB comment offered to another commenter who was discussing this post. He gave a perspective that I had not considered, about the retired breeders at Chimp Haven. Since the commenter did not post to this site, I will not identify him, but this is some of what he wrote:

    Hopefully, you'll get out to Chimp Haven someday and see some of the old girls who spent years in "breeding colonies" who now become overwrought at the site of even human infants. An old lady affectionately called "Grandma" is so desperate to hold and cradle a living infant that she starts to hoot and clap her hands, seeking the attention of the infant and its mother, and after watching young females go to great lengths in attempt to aunt - I do believe she is essentially asking, "Please ... may I please hold that sweet baby."

    I have to take a few deep breaths sometimes to hold back my own sorrow for her sincere desperation.

    Unfortunately, a new infant in a sanctuary is never a joyous occasion, no matter how the image of the baby takes our fancy. They are forced to grow in an enclosed habitat surrounded by adults, each of whom is suffering developmental and personality disorders due to their previous life as research subjects, and those aberant behaviors become the model for the growing infant. Thus, behaviors utterly abnormal become encultured through teaching and observational learning. The model to reflect on is that of institutionalized women who give birth within the institution and raise their child - a child which stays within the system its entire life because its development is stunted or deranged by its environment. For Chimp Haven, the matter is made worse because the Federal government is already behind on their financial commitment, and any chimpanzee not specifically from government funded research is not covered - thus adding additional burden to a sanctuary dedicated to a day when no chimps will be in captivity (a goal that is pushed further back with each birth).