Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What do we do with the lab chimpanzees?

Last December’s announcement by Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, was greeted with much relief and a healthy dose of skepticism. Collins said that NIH was accepting the recommendations of the committee that was set up to review the use of chimpanzees in research, and that NIH would stop funding new projects until the recommendations were in place. I was definitely in the skeptical camp, thinking research would continue unabated, but a recent development close to home is starting to nudge me towards belief (and relief).
Earlier this month, the Montgomery Gazette, my home county newspaper in Maryland, published an article about a small but infamous research facility less than ten miles from my home. C. Benjamin Ford, the reporter, wrote in his article (Chimpanzee research hangs in the balance) that Bioqual was getting rid of its chimpanzees. “With federal grant money running out as federal officials debate the usefulness, costs and ethics of the research, the lab is winding down its vaccine tests on the chimpanzees…” Ford reported.
Lest we gush too approvingly of Bioqual, it might be worth noting that the outfit has long been the target of animal welfare advocates. According to PETA, “Bioqual's announcement comes 25 years after Jane Goodall called for the closure of SEMA [which merged with Bioqual] after undercover video footage released by PETA revealed abysmal conditions in the lab.” Efforts had picked up again recently. Six months ago, PETA bought stock in Bioqual to urge it to stop using chimpanzees in research. On May 31, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) filed a Petition for Enforcement Action that asks the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate Bioqual, find the company in violation of the Animal Welfare Act, and levy substantial fines. PCRM pointed out to USDA that the chimpanzees are suffering physical and psychological harm in violation of the federal Animal Welfare Act.
Less than two weeks after PCRM’s action, Bioqual told the Gazette it was getting out of the chimpanzee research business. Bioqual’s move does not seem to be well planned. Their website does not carry any announcement about shutting down what they had previously asserted was vital and profitable research.
Bioqual CEO John Landon evidently doesn’t know (or won’t tell) what his company is going to do with their chimpanzees. Ford reports that the chimpanzees “…will be transported to another research facility or a chimp haven for former research animals.” (Did he mean Chimp Haven, Inc?) The article quotes Landon saying, “We will miss them greatly,” but that’s the extent of the information we have on the chimps' future.
(I wrote to Landon, asking for more information, but I never received any response.) 

(Update 2/22/13: One of Bioqual's chimpanzees died during transport in 2011, and today it was reported that USDA slapped Bioqual's wrists. USDA issues warning after chimp dies.)
Bioqual is one facility with 15 chimpanzees. We have nearly a thousand chimpanzees in labs across the country. What is going to happen to those chimps when (not if) labs stop using them for bioinvasive research? What will happen to groups like the Bioqual chimpanzees, and how can individuals help?
It isn’t like we have a plethora of options for taking care of retired lab chimps.
Of course, there are the sanctuaries that belong to the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance. They are struggling for funding, and hopefully NIH can provide some grants, or at the very least figure out the best way to move some of the chimp research money to chimp care facilities. (Yes, I know, the Great Ape Protection Act, which has been languishing in Congress since 2008, requires the federal government to provide lifetime care of their great apes “in a suitable sanctuary.” Raise your hands if you think this Congress is going to pass the bill. Hmmm, not many hands are up…)
BTW, speaking of sanctuaries, I don’t believe there are adequate safeguards to stop labs from dumping their chimps into the horrid sideshows that call themselves “sanctuaries.” I hope I’m wrong about that. These fake sanctuaries breed their animals and use them in entertainment or subject them to “research” that never seems to be peer-reviewed or published by reputable publications.
Zoos are a possible option for new chimp homes, but that option has been used sparingly so far. In 2010, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Chimpanzee Species Survival Plan helped to relocate 14 chimpanzees who were used in TV, movies, and advertising. Maryland Zoo provided a home for two of the chimps, as did Oakland Zoo. Houston Zoo took in the all the others. In earlier actions, North Carolina Zoo brought in Kendall, a chimp from Universal Studios, and two young pet chimps were moved to Little Rock Zoo. Kansas City Zoo gave a home to a chimpanzee that was privately owned and, about seven years ago, a young chimp from a zoo in Puerto Rico was moved to the St. Louis Zoo. There are some ex-lab chimps in zoos as well. (Not many, I’m told, but zoos have taken in a few from Yerkes in the last couple of decades.)
The Netherlands faced this issue a couple of years ago, when the Biomedical Primate Research Centre (BPRC) stopped using chimpanzees. Esmay van Strien, a great ape lover in Amsterdam, let me know about the Dutch program, where the government figured out how to find adequate housing for the chimpanzees. In September 2006, 28 chimpanzees who were chronically infected with the AIDS virus or hepatitis C virus moved into specialized accommodations at AAP, the only sanctuary in Holland.
All the healthy chimpanzees were moved to zoos that met strict criteria set out by BPRC. Monkey World (England) took in four chimps; Odense Zoo (Denmark) received ten; Leipzig Zoo (Germany) took in 18; Monde Sauvage (Belgium) received three; Copenhagen Zoo (Denmark) took five; La Vallée de Singes (France) took ten; and de Beekse Bergen (Netherlands) took in 52 retired lab chimpanzees.
In all, Europe found suitable accommodations for 130 chimpanzees who were retired from research. According to ChimpCARE, the United States has 961 chimpanzees in biomedical research laboratories. How the hell are we going to take care of them?
Update: A June 29, 2012, report by the Washington Post tells the good news and bad news. Good news: the research chimps are out of Bioqual. The bad news: they were shipped to New Iberia Research Center, where a 2009 undercover investigation by the Humane Society revealed psychological suffering of chimpanzees and monkeys.

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