After 9 Years Retirement, Lab Chimps May Return to Medical Testing

By Jennifer Welsh | September 29, 2010 10:39 am

chimpThe governor of New Mexico wants a say in the future of 168 chimpanzees, and has pulled scientists, government officials, and even Jane Goodall into the debate.

The chimps in question are currently living (and have been for the last ten years) in a research reserve in the town of Alamogordo in New Mexico. They were all previously used as lab animals, where they are used to test and study HIV and Hepatitis C, life-threatening human diseases which don’t grow in any other animals.

The chimps were removed from laboratory testing after being taken from the Coulston Foundation, a research facility that was found to be abusing and neglecting its primate residents. The Alamogordo reserve was given the ten-year contract to house and care for the animals in 2001.

Harold Watson, who heads the chimpanzee research program for the National Center for Research Resources, said that with the end of the contract, it only makes sense to use the chimps for their original purpose. [The New York Times]

To cut costs (the contract paid out to the tune of about $2 million per year), the NIH is planning to move the chimps to a facility in San Antonio that already houses 172 chimps. There, they might be used once again for medical testing. The director of the Texas facility explains that any procedures on the chimps would be small, like injections or tissue samples.

“These are mostly clinical procedures that are also done with human beings,” said Dr. John L. VandeBerg, director of the Southwest National Primate Research Center. “We are doing them with chimpanzees to develop drugs and vaccines that can be used in human subjects.” [The Associated Press]

Enter New Mexico’s governor, Bill Richardson. He wants Congress to convert the chimps’ current home in Alamogordo into a sanctuary and behavioral research facility, keeping the chimps, the money, and the jobs at home. Jane Goodall has written to the NIH arguing against the move to Texas, and animal rights advocates are supporting Governor Richardson’s proposal.

“These chimpanzees have given up their freedom, if not their natural environment, their bodies, their health, their children to research,” said Laura Bonar, program director for Animal Protection of New Mexico, which wants the government to turn the Alamogordo facility into a retirement sanctuary for the chimps. “And at the end of their lives, we can give them something back.” [The New York Times]

Returning these Alamogordo chimps to active medical research duty has reignited the debate over the ethics of primate experimentation. The use of great apes for medical research has recently been outlawed in Europe, and there is currently great ape protection legislation pending on the congressional floor,  but the NIH hasn’t been very receptive to the suggestions made by Richardson to keep these chimps out of the lab.

NIH spokeswoman Cindy McConnell said the agency’s plan “is to transport all of the Alamogordo Primate Facility chimpanzees to the Southwest National Primate Research Center by the end of 2011.” [The Dallas Morning News]

Related content:
80beats: University, Fearing Animal-Rights Violence, Axes Baboon Study
80beats: After Fire-Bombing, “Pro-Test” Rallies in Support of Animal Research
80beats: Allegations of Mistreated Lab Chimps Spark a Federal Investigation
80beats: EU Proposal Would Spare Great Apes From Medical Research
DISCOVER: Discover Interview: Jane Goodall

Image: Flickr/OctopusHat

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Living World
  • Rhacodactylus

    I’m all for animal rights, but if hooking a chimps brain up to a car battery will save one person from developing AIDS down the road, then I’ve got the jumper cables.

  • kirk

    Rhacodactylus Says: “I have not the slightest interest in researching this subject, etc. etc.”

    For me, a quick read of Jared Diamond’s “The Third Chimpanzee” (JUST THE FIRST 31 pages) put me on the side of Homo Trog. or Pan Sapien. Put the jumper cable on your mother while your water board her and inject her with HIV.

  • walositoad

    There have been no significant advancements in hepatitis vaccines using these animals as models, considering the cruel procedures regularly performed on them and the huge amount of taxpayer dollars used to fund this “research”. Continual painful invasive procedures, such as multiple liver biopsies, multiple “knockdowns”, and long-term single cage confinement for pharma studies, must be stopped. The govt argues that certain “humane parameters” are in place, but these “restrictions” are insufficient at best, and these parameters were not established in the best interest of the animals. This whole aspect of chimpanzee research is a cash cow for scientists at fruitless play with NIH grant funding at the taxpayer’s expense. Not to mention that hundreds of other chimps are just being housed by these labs/facilities while they collect (taxpayer) money from NIH for housing them. Passing the Great Ape Protection Act (S. 3694) to ban ape research would not only eliminate the waste of millions of taxpayer dollars, but would help these animals live the rest of their lives in peaceful retirement. It’s a win-win for everyone–except for those who have no problem with sucking the taxpayers dry. Call your representatives and NIH and let them know what you think.

  • James E.

    If your argument is that spending money on research that uses apes is a drain on taxpayers, how is paying to build and maintain a sanctuary or sanctuaries not a similar drain? Also you only use one example of research that has not made significant advancement, hepatitis vaccines, for your argument for banning ape research. What about the other medical breakthroughs that have resulted from research using apes?

  • Katharine

    James E, we can use primates less intelligent than apes to do this research. (For a frame of reference about what I think about ape research, I’m a biology student who’s planning to go to graduate school for neurobiology.)

    There are severe ethical problems with using species as intelligent as the great apes. In addition, it is significantly more expensive to maintain them for research in controlled conditions than to let them live out the rest of their lives in peace in less controlled conditions more reminiscent of their natural environment.

    It’s better to use macaques.

  • Jennifer Welsh

    Hey all,

    Thanks for reading and the comments. This is a particularly tough issue and I know everyone has pretty strong feelings about it, so thanks for keeping it civil.

    Hopefully as we develop better animal and in vitro models we can continue (the US has already place a memorandums on laboratories breeding more chimps, and their numbers continue to fall as they age, down to about 700 left in the country) to decrease our use for chimps as model organisms.

    As it stands now, it seems that the chimp is still needed as a model organisms in some cases, because of their genetic similarity to humans. My question is, considering that researchers are going to do their experiments either way, would you rather see more, new chimps enter the system or additional testing happen to those that are already in the system?

    Just a question, I would really like to hear your thoughts.


  • l


  • pat


  • Rhacodactylus

    Ok, it’s fine to make the argument that animal models aren’t worth the costs associated with them, or that there is a higher moral price paid in addition to the actual animal, but the idea that animal models aren’t useful is just propaganda, they are insanely important and useful as a part of the study of disease. The costs might ultimately be too high, but that doesn’t mean they don’t produce results.

    I do put human life above animal life, and I always will.

    As far as new chimps entering the system or more experiments happening to those that are already there, I think that the decision should be made based on what will benefit the research the most.

    Oh and Kirk, i love the guy who hasn’t even finished the one book he’s read on the topic telling me that I refused to do my research. I just have a different value system than you do, and human life will always trump animal life for me. That isn’t to say animals aren’t important and worthy of protection, it’s just that medical science should never suffer because of animal rights. Extra childish with the “your mom” attack . . . how playground of you =)


  • tiddas

    If chimpanzees will be undergoing same shots and biopsies as humans, homo sapiens should organize for their rights to medical research compensation and get these freeloading apes away from our jobs! Yeah, all right, humans are way more important than animals and way better models for this research. Go back where you came from, primate scum!

  • Dan

    It is our right to torture animals so humans can eat Mcdonalds and watch dancing with the stars.

    he who tortures or uses a animal for ones gain will pay later


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