“Soon, Sterling’s companions will taste the freedom that he never had.”
It has been three years since The Humane Society of the United States released an undercover investigation of New Iberia Research Center, the largest chimpanzee laboratory in the world, and gave the public an unprecedented look at the grim reality of life behind closed lab doors.
Finally, though, the worst may be over now for some of these intelligent and long-suffering animals. Although there is still work to do to end chimpanzee experimentation, the United States is turning its focus to getting government-owned chimpanzees out of laboratories and into the safety of sanctuaries.
Videotaped evidence from The HSUS investigation showed deplorable conditions at this lab, chimpanzees throwing themselves against cages, screaming frantically and inflicting self-harm and revealed animals forced to endure a life of anxiety and misery.
The investigation exposed the plight of Sterling, who was born in a lab, ripped away from his mother at birth and used in experiments, subjecting him to infection with Hepatitis C, hundreds of blood draws, countless liver biopsies and other procedures that required him to be anesthetized monthly.
Not surprisingly, Sterling suffered from depression and bouts of excessive weight loss from an early age. He also engaged in frequent self-mutilation, creating wounds on his hands, face and belly. Sterling died at New Iberia at the young age of 24, less than half the lifespan for a chimpanzee.
This kind of lifetime suffering is not only tragic, but needless.
The United States is the last developed country in the world to conduct invasive research on chimpanzees. Though it’s too late for Sterling, the prospects for more than 900 other chimpanzees remaining in United States laboratories today is much more hopeful.
This progress has been driven by the development of more effective scientific alternatives and the growth of ethical concerns that surround using a highly intelligent species in projects that cause them harm. Caring for chimpanzees in sanctuary instead of warehousing them in laboratory facilities also makes good fiscal sense, saving taxpayers approximately $25 million per year.
Just this week a group of independent experts convened by the National Institutes of Health recommended that the government substantially cut back on chimpanzee research and retire the majority of the more than 350 federally-owned chimpanzees to suitable sanctuaries. The panel went so far as to indicate that the five U.S. laboratories do not meet the needs of chimpanzees –- a major step forward in the research community.
The group was established by the NIH following a groundbreaking report on chimpanzee research released by the Institute of Medicine last year. The IOM report concluded that such research is “largely unnecessary.” Indeed, it did not identify any area of biomedical research for which chimpanzees are essential and pointed to several available alternatives.
The latest expert recommendations came on the heels of a major announcement from the NIH that the 110 government-owned chimpanzees located at the New Iberia Research Center would be made “permanently ineligible” for research and moved to Chimp Haven, the national chimpanzee sanctuary in Keithville, La. The director of NIH referred to this decision as a significant step in winding down the agency’s investment in chimpanzee research and noted that there is great sensitivity to the special nature of these remarkable animals, our closest relatives.
Soon, Sterling’s companions will taste the freedom that he never had.
We still have a lot of work to do to protect chimpanzees who continue to be used in privately funded research. Thankfully, a number of companies engaged in developing therapeutic approaches to deal with human diseases such as Hepatitis C have foresworn the use of chimpanzees, including Idenix Pharmaceuticals, GlaxoSmithKline and most recently Gilead Sciences.
We’d like to see every company follow their lead. I’m looking forward to the day when the very last laboratory chimpanzee sets foot on the ground at a sanctuary, but we still have a lot of work to do to bring this about.
We need the government to take these recommendations and put them into action, no backsliding — so that chimpanzees like Sterling’s survivors can depend upon vast and growing scientific progress to ensure their protection and well-being. Humans have a vital stake in this too because chimpanzees are not the answer to curing human disease. It’s time for the United States to join the rest of the world by ending chimpanzee use for invasive research and provide them with the retirement they deserve.
Kathleen Conlee is Vice President of Animal Research Issues at The Humane Society of the United States.