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Friday, April 18, 2008

Protecting Our Closest Living Relatives

Christine Kenneally recently penned a thought-provoking "Washington Post" column about how alike people and animals are in so many ways. Chimpanzees are perhaps the most striking example, as our closest living relatives understand and construct sentences and favor different tools for hammering and fishing. As Kenneally wrote, “chimpanzees make sense of the world in many of the same ways we do. The implication is indisputable: Humans are not unique.”

Chimp Because of these similarities, it’s especially troubling that about 1,200 chimpanzees are still used in U.S. laboratories. These highly intelligent and social creatures got a boost in Congress yesterday when a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced H.R. 5852, the Great Ape Protection Act, to end invasive research on all chimps and to retire those who are federally owned to permanent sanctuary. The bill was introduced by U.S. Representatives Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), and Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), along with Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), Tom Allen (D-Maine), John Campbell (R-Calif.), and Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) as original cosponsors.

The U.S. remains the largest user of chimpanzees in biomedical research, as England, Sweden, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Austria, and Japan have all banned or limited their use. Some chimps have been languishing in labs for more than 40 years, confined in steel cages for most of their lives and enduring sometimes painful and distressing experimental procedures. It costs U.S. taxpayers $20 million to $25 million each year—money that many in the scientific community believe could be allocated to more effective research. More than 300 scientists, physicians, and educators have joined The Humane Society of the United States’ Chimps Deserve Better campaign and the New England Anti-Vivisection Society's Project R&R: Release and Restitution for Chimpanzees in U.S. Laboratories in calling for an end to invasive experiments on chimps.

Graph The number of chimps in research has declined steadily over recent years, as the animals have proven to be ineffective models and innovations in alternatives have emerged. In 2000, Congress passed the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection (CHIMP) Act which established a national sanctuary system for those chimpanzees who have provided long service in laboratories. The law was upgraded in 2007, thanks to the work of U.S. Representative Jim McCrery (R-La.) and U.S. Senator Richard Burr (R-N.C.), to ensure that these animals could not be removed from sanctuaries and placed back into research. 

Many former lab chimps now live out their lives at outstanding animal sanctuaries such as Chimp Haven, Save the Chimps, the Fauna Foundation, and the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch. Groups like Animal Protection of New Mexico and In Defense of Animals are working to get remaining chimps to sanctuaries, such as the 288 currently housed at the Alamogordo Primate Facility on the Holloman Air Force Base. The National Institutes of Health confiscated these chimps from the bankrupt Coulston Foundation and handed them over to Charles River Laboratories, which received a ten-year contract and more than $4 million per year to maintain the colony. Charles River is under fire from the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office after the recent deaths of two chimps and near-death of a third.

But it shouldn’t just fall on the shoulders of private groups to clean up the mess caused by the research industry, or law enforcement officials to prosecute the worst abuses. Congress must play its part, too, and recognize it’s time for a national public policy to protect our closest living relatives. Just as lawmakers passed the CHIMP Act in 2000 to give sanctuary to chimps, they should now finish the job and allow the remaining chimps to be released from labs to live out their lives free from harm.

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