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Chimp Attack Should Spark Ethical Reflection on Our Closest Primate Relatives

By Debra Durham, Ph.D.
This opinion piece was published on Feb. 28, 2009, in The Miami Herald.

The horrific incident was over in minutes—but Charla Nash will never fully recover from her injuries. The 55-year-old Connecticut woman may need a face transplant after being attacked by Travis, a 200-pound chimpanzee kept in a most unnatural kind of captivity.

The attack left Nash with life-altering wounds, Travis the chimp dead by police bullets, and people around the world fascinated and aghast. A news clip featuring the 911 call that brought police to the scene was posted to YouTube, and in a few hours, it had attracted hundreds of thousands of views.

As a primatologist, I wonder if we’re asking the right questions about what happened on that Monday evening in Connecticut—and about our ethical obligations to the nonhuman primates we keep as pets, use for entertainment, and experiment on in laboratories.

As we reflect on this tragedy, we are confronted with the strangeness and complexity of our relationships to our closest primate relatives—chimpanzees. We recoil at their power, revile them as monsters in films, and mock them and poke fun at them when they are dressed in funny clothes and doing tricks, as Travis had done in commercials for clothing stores and soda companies.

But then tragedy strikes. When these remarkable animals make it impossible for us to see them as toys or tools or trophies, we are reminded that our similarities to them are profound and that we care for our fellow great apes.

Chimpanzees are certainly amazing beings. They boast a repertoire that includes tool use, culture, and complex social and political lives.Families are very close. Friendships between males are also very close, sometimes lifelong. Ritual greetings, group activities, closeness, and grooming all serve to keep relationships vital and strong.

Chimpanzees can also do many things that people mistakenly think of uniquely human behaviors. Travis, for example, could apparently drink wine from a glass, dress himself, and even log into a computer.

But apparently, all that is not quite enough. Neither the knowledge of our commonalities—cognitive, cultural, and otherwise—nor the capacity of these animals to suffer has inspired adequate protection for chimpanzees.They teeter on the brink of extinction in the wild. Their plight is just as tragic in captivity. Many are forced to perform tricks or languish in some roadside exhibit.

Others suffer a fate like Travis. Last year, a chimpanzee named Tony managed to escape from a Texas laboratory twice. The second time, a police officer opened fire on Tony, who died of multiple gunshot wounds.

People may be shocked to learn that laboratories in the United States are permitted to keep chimpanzees in cages about the size of a kitchen table—sometimes for decades. Well over 1,000 individual chimpanzees remain in labs where they endure untold pain and suffering under such conditions.

The recent tragedy in Connecticut has breathed new life into efforts to pass state and federal laws to prevent people from owning exotic animals. That’s critically important, of course. But we owe these animals more.

In light of all we know about chimpanzees, we must also realize that how we currently keep and use them in laboratories is fraught with ethical problems. That has been recognized in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Japan, and other countries that have passed laws to ban or restrict chimpanzee experiments. It is time for the United States to join the growing list of nations taking a stand on this issue.

The Great Ape Protection Act, which may come before Congress later this year, gives us an opportunity to make this important change. It is time for us to retire all chimpanzees in labs to sanctuary homes where their well-being is the priority.

Everything we know about Travis suggests that he was a highly intelligent individual with a sense of humor and a powerful curiosity. He was also a wild animal with complex social and physical needs. He didn’t belong in TV commercials or living in someone’s house. And other chimpanzees who are just as intelligent and complex as he was don’t belong in laboratory cages.

Debra Durham, Ph.D., is a primatologist and ethologist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.


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