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Marc Bekoff

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One Small Step for Chimpanzeekind

Posted: 12/20/11 02:37 PM ET

Chimpanzees have been much in the news recently. There's been a lot of concern about their use in invasive biomedical research and deceptive ploys by those who want to use them (more background information and discussion can be found here and here and here and here) and also some exciting news about the complexity of their social relationships that bears on the evolutionary origins of friendship and surely is relevant to the continued use and abuse of chimpanzees in all sorts of research.

According to a report in the New York Times:

The National Institutes of Health on Thursday suspended all new grants for biomedical and behavioral research on chimpanzees and accepted the first uniform criteria for assessing the necessity of such research. Those guidelines require that the research be necessary for human health, and that there be no other way to accomplish it.

It's important to realize that this is not a ban in that this move does not put an end to research on these amazing beings. It's really a good beginning of a long journey that many hope one day will indeed result in ending all research on our closest relatives. Here's a bit more detail:

The report offered two sets of criteria, one for biomedical experiments, which it said could be considered necessary when there was no other way to do the research -- with other animals, lab techniques or human subjects -- and if not doing the research would 'significantly slow or prevent important advancements to prevent, control and/or treat life-threatening or debilitating conditions.'

For behavioral and genomic experiments, the report recommended that the research should be done on chimps only if the animals are cooperative, and in a way that minimizes pain and distress. It also said that the studies should 'provide otherwise unattainable insight into comparative genomics, normal and abnormal behavior, mental health, emotion or cognition.'

The report also recommended that chimpanzees be housed in conditions that are behaviorally, socially and physically appropriate. All United States primate research centers are already accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, and Dr. Kahn [chairman of the Institute of Medicine committee that produced the report and a professor of bioethics and public policy at Johns Hopkins University] said that this accreditation meets the committee's recommendation.

That was one area where the Humane Society disagreed with the report. 'That language,' said Mr. Pacelle [President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States], referring to the requirements for adequate cages and enclosures, 'was disappointing to us,' because it could mean that chimps that were not in experiments would stay at research centers. 'I'm arguing for the movement of all of them to the sanctuaries,' he said, where large open enclosures are much more common.'


Clearly there's a lot of wiggle room here and more work needs to be done to really grant protection to our closest relatives:

Upon reading the report, Theodora Capaldo, president of NEAVS [New England Anti-Vivisection Society] and its national campaign, Project R&R: Release and Restitution for Chimpanzees in U.S. Laboratories, stated, 'This pivotal report is the first step toward ending all chimpanzee research in U.S. laboratories. The science guided the IOM [Institute of Medicine] to its conclusion that they are 'not necessary' -- a promising outcome for chimpanzees and better science for humans.

Furthermore, three highly respected scholars, Tom Beauchamp, Hope Ferdowsian, and John Gluck, note:

The following is made a necessary condition -- or 'criterion' -- of the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research: 'The research in question cannot be performed ethically on human subjects.' The problem with this criterion is that it begs the most critical issues that ought to have been addressed in the report. The fact that it is unethical to perform the research on humans does not render it ethical to perform the research on chimpanzees, nor does the unavailability of human subjects contribute to the justification of use of chimpanzees. There is a huge gap that the report does not address.

Other noted researchers have also weighed in. In response to an essay posted by the College of William & Mary's Chancellor Professor of Anthropology Barbara King on NPR's website, animal behavior expert Lori Marino notes:

The Institute of Medicine project was, from the beginning, based on the mistaken premise that using chimpanzees for research is ethically supportable. The task of the project was to consider only the scientific merit of continued use of chimpanzees, requiring the participants to separate the 'scientific' from the "moral' issues. But it is just as objectionable to do that in the case of using chimpanzees as it is for humans. Granting the committee's charge, however, it is clear that they are using the same kinds of loophole-ridden considerations as most university IACUCs (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees) do.

That is, they've created 'criteria' that can easily be skirted by most chimpanzee users. In my opinion, the IOM decision is little more than the same kind of ongoing duplicitous consideration humans give to most nonhumans. It does not represent progress but, instead, more of the same old justifications for maintaining control over other sentient beings for our convenience.

King herself writes, "That the IOM does not endorse an outright ban on pain-causing research using these apes is a disappointment, especially considering the report acknowledges chimpanzees are highly intelligent primates capable of feeling grief and depression." Indeed, ample research has shown that chimpanzees are incredibly intelligent and have very rich emotional lives.

It's important to celebrate small victories -- this surely is one for chimpanzeekind -- and to remain positive, but there's a lot of work to be done to grant full protection to chimpanzees in research. You can contact members of congress and also write to the NIH.

You can directly contact Dr. Francis Collins, the Director of the National Institutes of Health at 9000 Rockville Pike Bethesda, MD 20892; email: francis.collins@nih.gov; Telephone: 301-496-2433. More contact details can be found here. Ask them not to return the retired chimpanzees to laboratories where they will be harmed once again and ask them to punish those who violate moratoriums on breeding and other agreement