It seems as though the world of lab animal research may finally be catching up with public opinion. In an announcement made in November 2015, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced that it was ending its chimpanzee research program, and retiring the animals to the Chimp Haven sanctuary. This comes at the end of a path that started in 2013, to reduce the number of chimps used, and eventually led to eliminating the program all together in November. Perhaps a crucial factor in this decision was that the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed captive chimps on the endangered species list in June 2015, to coincide with their status in the wild. The last place an animal as intelligent as the chimpanzee belongs is in a cage, especially for medical research. This is a great ending, and to me signals changing tides in the world of lab animal research.
Humans have been using animals to test medications for hundreds, maybe even thousands of years (though I suppose they didn’t have medication in the form we think of it today). The common thinking has always been, “I want to test it before I take it.” For so long, animals were seen as the perfect way to test our early theories. The logic behind this to people (maybe some people still feel like this today) is that animals are not aware, they don’t think, they don’t feel pain, so therefore it doesn’t matter. It pains me to think of all the awful things that have happened to animals over the years. From vivisection, to cosmetic testing, to launching animals into space, and separating babies from mothers (in primates, which is horrifying). Chimpanzees have been used to research many human diseases, including HIV/AIDS, cancer, and hepatitis.
However, in the last hundred years or so, we have learned an incredible amount on animal cognition and behavior, which suggests that they are more like us than we thought. Elephants have memories, macaws form lifelong monogamous pairs, and squirrels can remember where they stored food months before they go looking for it. Perhaps the most impactful research has been done on primates. From Jane Goodall, to Dian Fossey, to Frans de Waal, primate research has changed the field of animal behavior forever. It has shown that we are not so unlike our fellow animals, and even gone so far as to provide more concrete evidence for Charles Darwin’s “Theory” of evolution. We share so much of our DNA with chimps and other primates, why is it so hard to believe that they think and feel in the same ways that we do?
It seems as though public opinion has shifted in this direction, not just for chimpanzees, but all animals being used by humans. In recent years, through petitioning from organizations like PETA and the humane society, several big restaurant chains have vowed to change their caging systems for pigs and chickens. These include big names like McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts, and Denny’s. Ringling Brothers also made an announcement saying that it would be removing its elephants from its circus acts this coming May, way ahead of the original deadline of 2018. These are big victories, but there is still a long way to go.
I can tell you first hand of at least two facilities in Massachusetts that still have primates for medical research. In addition, Harvard Medical School just recently closed the doors on its primate research program due to numerous animal welfare concerns. I know that there are many more facilities in the state that still do primate research, and several more out of state, including two facilities of my former employer. I read recently that separation studies are still going on with monkeys, mainly rhesus macaques. These are the studies where a baby is separated from its mother to study the effects of such a trauma. I can’t help but wonder: Haven’t we learned all we can learn from these studies? Isn’t it time to stop this cruelty?
While I find myself not agreeing with primate research under any circumstance, I believe that as of where we stand right now, lab animal research is, in my opinion, a necessary evil. I am confident that soon there will be a time when we no longer need to test on animals of all species, and to see primates being used less and less makes me very happy. But until science gets to that point, it is not too hard to make sure that no animal is subjected to unnecessary testing. Perhaps it’s time for everyone to reevaluate as NIH did, and determine which if any of the ongoing studies on chimps and other primates are really necessary at this point. I come from the land of lab animal research. I have admitted in previous posts that this is not where I saw myself winding up, but I feel as though I have a responsibility now. The world of animal research needs people in it that truly care about the animals. It is up to me and other technicians to make sure that the animals under my care are treated humanely, and with the utmost respect. When the time comes for lab animal research to end, I will welcome it with open arms. And I can feel that approaching…
Nicole is currently employed at a university, caring for lab animals. She has always been an animal lover, and more recently an animal activist.