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‘Apes’ Star Has it Easy Compared with Real Lab Chimpanzees

By John Pippin, M.D., F.A.C.C.
Aug. 24, 2011

Abused. Neglected. Experimented on. Caesar, the digitally created simian hero of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, puts up with a lot before he finally snaps and starts his epic revolt.

But as a physician and former animal researcher, I can tell you that this fictional ape has it relatively easy compared with some of the real-life chimpanzees being used in United States laboratories.

Take Cammy, for example. Separated from her mother the day she was born, this 30-year-old chimpanzee has been chemically immobilized more than 100 times. She’s been infected with hepatitis C and intravenously dosed with hepatitis A from human feces. She’s currently confined in a Texas laboratory that conducts primate studies involving bioterrorism agents and other deadly pathogens, including the Ebola virus.

Cammy is just one of the more than 1,000 chimpanzees who remain in U.S. laboratories. Each of them is another reason why Congress should pass the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act. This important legislation will end the use of chimpanzees in invasive experiments, permanently end breeding programs, and release federally owned chimpanzees to permanent sanctuaries.

There’s ample reason to focus on protecting chimpanzees. They are our closest living relative, sharing more than 95 percent of our DNA. Despite this overwhelming genetic similarity, we have a long and unpleasant history of experimentation on our cousins, with American chimpanzee research dating back to the 1920s. The United States is the only nation still using chimpanzees in large-scale invasive research. Other nations, including Japan and the 27-nation European Union, no longer permit such experiments.

In U.S. laboratories, these highly intelligent, social animals can be confined in isolation, separated from their families, infected with dangerous agents, and subjected to invasive, painful procedures such as repeated injections and biopsies. Sedation administered by shooting the chimpanzees with a dart gun can send them crashing to the cage floor.

Chimpanzees’ complex biological, emotional, and social needs simply cannot be met in a captive laboratory environment where the law permits them to be confined in restrictive cages the size of a kitchen table and subjected to experiment after experiment. These primates suffer similarly to human trauma victims, exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, sometimes biting themselves or pulling out their hair.

And despite our similarities, chimpanzees are simply poor models for human diseases. These animals might be our closest relatives, but our genetic and physiological variations mean that we often contract different diseases, that illnesses progress differently, and that we need different treatments. Decades’ worth of chimpanzee experiments focusing on HIV, hepatitis C, and other diseases have not resulted in effective vaccines.

However, these experiments have wasted our tax dollars and squandered critically important opportunities to meaningfully advance reliable, humane biomedical research. The expense of keeping a chimpanzee can reach $750,000 over his or her lifetime, and using even one chimpanzee in an experiment can cost researchers $70,000 more. Often, federal funds cover these costs.

Between 2000 and 2010, more than 200 million federal research dollars were wasted on unethical experiments on chimpanzees. Research funding would be better spent on sophisticated, modern methods such as human-centered studies, in vitro testing, disease-specific culture systems, and computer and mathematical modeling. Not only are they more humane, they’re more scientifically and financially responsible.

Because the use of chimpanzees has been so ineffective in treating human diseases, fewer than 20 percent of laboratory chimpanzees are used in active research protocols. The rest are warehoused at taxpayer expense, some of them languishing for decades in cages.

The Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act would allow more than 500 of these federally owned chimpanzees to move to sanctuaries, where they can be free of experiments for the remainder of their lives. The bill already has more than 70 congressional supporters and furthers our national efforts to cut wasteful spending.

However convincing our summer blockbuster’s special effects may be, chimpanzees are not going to free themselves from laboratories. It’s up to us to create a better future for them.

John Pippin, M.D., F.A.C.C., is the director of academic affairs with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

John Pippin, M.D., F.A.C.C.

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