07/04/2012 10:48 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Free the Rockville 15!

A Quest for Freedom in a Time of Hope

Though born in the UK, I have always appreciated the American spirit. I first deeply connected with it when I visited George Washington's Mount Vernon home. In the hallway, I saw a key displayed in a glass box. It was a key to the Bastille, the famous prison used at whim by kings and stormed by the people in the French Revolution, inspiring America's own quest for freedom. After the prison was demolished, the key was found in the rubble and sent to George Washington who hung it in a corridor at the center of his home. As he walked in and out of doorways along the corridor, I am sure he would look at the key and be reminded of his vision of freedom for America.

While I felt clarity at Mount Vernon, I felt confusion as I recently stepped into the reception area of a chimpanzee research laboratory in Rockville, Md. On the outside it looked like a regular office, except no name plaque was displayed. I signed papers agreeing not to take photos and followed my guides around a corner, through a door and into the visitors' viewing area that seemed built and decorated to appease the concerns of visitors rather than cater to the natural needs of the animals forced to live there.


The facility housed 15 chimpanzees: the Rockville 15. A colorful carpeted corridor ran between two rows of plexiglass cages. Each cage housed one or two chimpanzees. I was jolted by the violent noise of the two- to seven-year old chimpanzees banging their bodies and hands against the inside of their glass cages. Their keepers responded by banging the glass from the other side of the cages, creating pandemonium. The cages looked small -- as the chimpanzees swung in plastic buckets, they hit the walls on each side.

The youngsters were housed in pairs. Two-year-olds caged in pairs kept each other company. The seven-year-olds were housed alone. These animals would never able to go outside, breathe fresh air, see the sun, climb trees, and be part of a family. They would never be chimpanzees the way nature intended. But a chilling nod to institutionalization, each one had been taught to extend a limb to be injected.

These 15 chimpanzees were most likely bred in New Iberia Research Center, Louisiana, against the government's breeding ban -- just one in a long string of alleged violations by the facility. The chimpanzees were then forcibly removed from their federally-owned mothers and enrolled in research experiments funded by taxpayers.

So are the lives of these chimpanzee babies being sacrificed for the greater good? Surely there must be a reason to use them in research protocols, perhaps for the betterment of human health?


An Institutes of Medicine Report released last year concluded that chimpanzees are not necessary in any current medical research. And the government already has too many chimpanzees it doesn't need, which is the reason it banned chimpanzee breeding.

As of this year, the government's health agency, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has stopped funding new chimpanzee research, pending review. The experiments the Rockville 15 were used in are now completed.

The suffering of these youngsters, the polluting of their bodies, and the emotional trauma they will carry their whole lives is needless. The fate of the Rockville 15 and all chimpanzees presently housed in laboratories is unclear.

Eleven of the Rockville 15 have already been transported back to New Iberia Research Center which experiments on and warehouses over 340 chimpanzees. The remaining four will be moved in the coming weeks to this notorious laboratory that was the focus of an undercover investigation in 2009. The investigation revealed the most abhorrent violations against chimpanzees and other primates within its opaque walls.

A much more desirable destination for these chimpanzees would be Chimp Haven, the government's sanctuary for retired chimpanzees, which is just a couple of hundred miles down the road from New Iberia. For chimpanzees locked in research centers, it is the key in the rubble.

The US Congress is beginning to move legislation called The Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act that will help chimpanzees get out of laboratories and be homed in sanctuaries. I have meetings every week on Capitol Hill to help speed the passage of this new law. The chimpanzees need all the help we can give.

We need to communicate with Dr Francis Collins, Director of the NIH, to ask him to intervene to have the Rockville 15 released to sanctuary, rather than warehoused in a laboratory at taxpayers' expense.

Please join me in taking action by signing my petition to Dr Collins to "Free the Rockville 15". Your support and that of your friends will make a great deal of difference!

Happy Independence Day!