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An Embarrassment of Chimps

The U.S. is the last Western country that still uses them for medical research

By Elfie Semotan and Joseph D'Agnese
May 1, 2002 12:00 AMOct 9, 2019 7:56 PM
chimp 1
As a research chimp, Billy Jo underwent 43 liver biopsies, three bone-marrow biopsies, and two lymph-node biopsies. He also chewed off his thumbs while the hallucinogenic effect of a tranquilizing and painkilling drug wore off.


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I first heard the story a year ago. I was interviewing a scientist when he began griping about how difficult it is to get a chimpanzee for medical research. "They're expensive," he said, "and you've got to pay all this money into a social security plan to take care of them when they retire." Retired chimps? Just where do they go to retire—and what do they do when they get there? Eat bananas? Play shuffleboard? "I heard they put them on an island sanctuary in Liberia," the researcher said. He didn't know much more than that, and of course it wasn't his job to know. He is the scientist. He uses chimps to answer scientific questions. Someone else deals with what comes afterward. For a while I thought about going to Africa to look for that chimp island. In my mind's eye I envisioned a paradise where repatriated American chimps lived free of humans, free of the cages that once confined them. But that turned out to be a pleasant fiction, a tale told to lab workers foolish enough to ask. By then I had observed chimps in zoos, read about them in the scientific literature, and immersed myself in a world of animal sanctuaries that is stranger, more interesting, and more disturbing than I could have imagined.  Eighteen chimps do live on a pair of islands in Liberia, most of which were bred on-site by an American hepatitis research laboratory. And sanctuaries throughout Africa shield wild chimps from poachers. None of these places will accept  U. S.-bred lab chimps after we're done with them. That's why sanctuaries are needed here. At this moment, the United States is up to its ears in chimps. During the 1980s, laboratory supply companies bred chimps like crazy to meet the demands of AIDS and hepatitis researchers. That didn't work out too well. By the late 1990s researchers conceded that while some chimps become HIV-positive, almost none develop full-blown AIDS. At least 200 chimps have been exposed to HIV, yet only two may have died of AIDS. The researchers switched to macaque monkeys. For a short time the National Institutes of Health, which funds much of the biomedical research in this country, considered killing HIV-exposed chimps when they were no longer useful. The NIH later decided not to, in part because the animals are listed as an endangered species. But the surplus has mounted—today more than 1,600 live in various primate facilities in the United States—and humans have begun to ask themselves a serious question: What are we going to do with these animals?  During his last weeks in office, President Clinton signed the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection (CHIMP) Act, which mandates a national system of sanctuaries for chimps who qualify, but it is likely to be two years before any new refuges are ready. In the meantime many animals will have to remain in labs. So far, about 200 chimps have been earmarked for retirement. When chimps do enter sanctuaries, there will be a string attached: If a sanctuary owner takes government money, he or she must be prepared to send the chimps back to the lab for further research if asked to do so—a stipulation that infuriates those who believe that plucking a chimp out of retirement negates the concept of sanctuary.  In 1997 New York University decided to get out of the chimp business and shut down its Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates. It's a common story. Around the world, chimp labs are dwindling: The last remaining facility in Europe—in the Netherlands, with 105 chimps—is closing. New Zealand has banned chimp research, and in the United Kingdom no new licenses are being granted for this work. The only other nations that still use chimps for medical research are Japan (370 chimps), Liberia (18 chimps), and Gabon (72 chimps).  When labs close, chimps are up for grabs. Of the 250 chimps who contributed, as they say in lab parlance, to experiments at the New York University lab, 90 were placed in sanctuaries; the rest were transferred to other labs. The most difficult to place were those that had been exposed to HIV or hepatitis, both transmissible to humans.  Later in 1997 the Fauna Foundation outside Montreal became the first sanctuary in North America to give retired, HIV-exposed chimps a home. Fauna had been an animal refuge for close to 10 years, and the chimps joined a motley crowd of goats, pigs, chickens, rabbits, horses, turkeys, geese and ducks, cats and dogs, Scottish Highland steers, cows, llamas, emus, rheas, capuchin monkeys, one guanaco, one Jacob's sheep, one ostrich, and one donkey. Until Gloria Grow, 46, the owner of the sanctuary, and her husband, Richard Allan, 49, announced their intention to shelter 15 of the chimps from the New York University lab, eight of them HIV-infected, the refuge had been regarded by residents of Chambly as a harmless oddity. Suddenly, the local planning board challenged every variance Fauna requested. When the board saw plans for an elaborate, secure chimp house complete with cages, they acquiesced. Nonetheless, teachers conducted chimp drills at the elementary school, instructing kids to hide in the classroom closet if a chimp appeared in their midst; and police laid in a store of Tyvek suits and tranquilizer guns.  Fauna's chimps live in a 9,000-square-foot building that looks a bit like a day care center. Despite the cages, living conditions beat lab life knuckles down. The outdoor play area contains picnic tables, chairs, and swings; indoors, two-story playrooms are packed with toys, blankets, and more swings. Chimps can also rest in private cages that give them access to the indoor play space but keep them separated from humans. They can snack on fresh fruit and vegetables, or page languidly through Victoria's Secret catalogs. The human form enthralls great apes.  Each day Grow and her staff of three whip up three savory meals. The menu includes fruit, oatmeal, spaghetti, potatoes, soups, stews, steamed vegetables, and rice, as well as the occasional vegetarian pizza and birthday cake. Staffers mix gallons of concentrated orange juice every day and laboriously pour it into empty water bottles with plastic lids. "Most of the chimps know how to unscrew them," an employee explains, "but sometimes they like to stick a canine in the cap to bite it off." 

Gloria Grow hopes to move the chimps out of cages and is work-ing to build an island on her property where they can live and roam freely.

One day last October, the chimps are lounging around after lunch, picking at their food, grooming themselves, and playing with toys. Some snatch plastic cups of hot Tetley tea off the trolleys parked in front of their enclosure, sip carefully, and return the cups through the bars without spilling a drop. Grow brushes Tom's back with a small brush. "Let me see your fingernails," she says. Tom holds them up for inspection. Another chimp, 42-year-old Annie, the oldest and a surrogate mother to the others, spots the brush and gestures through the cage for it. "You want the brush?" Grow asks as she slips it to her. Annie spends a couple of blissful minutes stroking her coat.  A few minutes spent watching chimps manipulate objects like cups, bottles, and brushes quickly demonstrates why biologists regard them as the top tool users in the animal kingdom, after us. Besides being dexterous, they are intelligent, strong, and often aggressive, especially as they grow older. Chimps also seem to have a sense of humor, which any visitor to Fauna notices immediately: They delight in teasing humans as well as each other. They routinely spit water at their caretakers, cleverly varying the pattern to confuse them. They also seem to understand and respect social hierarchies: A beta male accepts his lot when an alpha male swipes his orange but goes ballistic when a lower-ranking female does the same.  The chimpanzee's ability to learn can be humbling. In 1967 psychologist Roger Fouts taught chimps to use American Sign Language, which they mastered and taught to other chimps. Since 1983 psychologist Sarah Boysen has been teaching chimps at Ohio State University to do simple arithmetic; in 1991 she figured out how to teach them fractions. In 1999 a landmark paper written by Jane Goodall and eight other prominent primatologists established that chimps use their smarts to master their environment. Chimps can codify cultural behavior—how to hunt, how to eat ants, how to groom oneself and others—and pass that knowledge along to their young ones. Chimps that live in the Gombe forests of Tanzania have been observed dancing, apparently to make the rain stop.  In the wild, bands of chimps will rove the jungle for six or seven miles a day, joining together to hunt monkeys, which they eat with relish, usually after dashing out the smaller creatures' brains. That's the side of chimps humans rarely see or choose not to see. However, they can also be kind. A chimp was once observed trying to help a wounded bird to fly at a zoo in England.  At Fauna, there is constant physical contact between humans and chimps. The tiniest scrape or scab on Grow's hand will elicit concern from a chimp, usually in the form of a kiss. According to the standards of the Centers for Disease Control, Fauna's chimp house is a biohazard facility. If this were a U.S. lab, workers would be required to wear Tyvek suits, goggles, masks, or hair nets, mandatory garb worn by researchers studying HIV or hepatitis. But Grow and her workers wear street clothes, unless a chimp has an open wound or needs surgery, in which case they follow aseptic procedures, donning gowns and gloves just as they would with a human patient. They believe that if the animals are treated well, they will not harm their caretakers. The theory has proved true so far, but the chimps do get into fights with each other that require bandages or surgery.  Now Grow calls to another animal: "Billy Jo, is your show on?" She peeks at the TV. "Oh, it's Rosie. Don't worry, Oprah will be on soon." Grow agonizes about keeping the chimps stimulated. Because they remain caged, she wants to help entertain their restless spirits. Hence the painstaking preparation of meals, classical music piped over the stereo, hanging spider plants, brushes and paints, Halloween decorations, Christmas lights, birthday parties, crackling fires in the wood-burning stove, strands of red licorice, and aromatherapy candles.  In the United States, lab animals fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture, which inspects labs and enforces the Animal Welfare Act of 1985. By these standards, the Fauna chimps were treated well in their former lives: They got adequate food and shelter, their cages were clean, and they received the occasional toy or orange. But Grow and others like her consider those standards weak and seek to do better. "I want them to be happy," Grow says. "To treat chimps well, you should treat them as you would victimized people. Because they have been victimized. Terribly. Oh, it's so awful what they've been through."  Annie, for example, was born in Africa, probably in 1959, then captured and sent to the United States. She gave her life to humans for more than 35 years—at least 15 in the circus, followed by 21 in the lab as a breeder. When she refused to mate, she was artificially inseminated. Her child was transferred to another facility at age 3. Another Fauna chimp, Rachel, was born at the Institute for Primate Studies in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1982. Rachel was sold for $10,000 as a pet but ended up at the New York University lab when her owners divorced. Rachel, who had grown up taking bubble baths and prancing around in dresses, spent the next 11 years isolated in a cage. Today she occasionally bursts into screaming and scratching fits, lashing out at her own hand, apparently because she thinks it is attacking her. Her outbursts have diminished somewhat since she arrived at Fauna in 1997, but her body is still covered with self-inflicted sores.  "Jeannie was going to be euthanized—did you meet her?" Grow asks. Lab workers had to medicate Jeannie, an HIV-exposed chimp, to stop her seizures, during which she ripped out her fingernails and thrashed any human or chimp nearby. "She had a nervous breakdown before she came here, but she has made lots of strides in her development. They all have. They put on weight, grow more hair, their coats are shinier. They sleep better at night. We don't have nearly as many fights as we used to when they first came, and they have learned to vocalize more like real chimps." 

After years spent in lab cages just 5 by 5 by 7 feet, the chimps arrive at the Fauna Foundation lacking social skills. Slowly they learn to enjoy hanging out in the playrooms, where favorite games are peekaboo and hide-and-seek. When they're anxious—which is often—they can retreat to small cages to be alone.

Fauna's annual budget for the entire farm is $60,000. The food bill is $40,000; the rest covers medicine and necessities such as bedding straw, tools, and equipment repairs. In a good year, $15,000 of that comes from private donations. Fauna is not eligible for funding under the CHIMP Act because the sanctuary is in Canada. Grow says she would not apply for funds even if Fauna were eligible because of the requirement that sanctuary owners return chimps to labs on demand: "I would never send them back. Who would?" The bulk of Fauna's operating revenue comes from a dog grooming business and from Allan's veterinary clinic. On the first night of my visit, Allan, a French-Canadian who has been doctoring animals on the outskirts of Montreal for 27 years, arrived at dinner in scrubs, looking exhausted. Delighted that Fauna would be the subject of this article, he quipped, "Tell them we need money."  One recent cold and wet morning, grow is chopping fresh vegetables for the rabbits and pigs when her sister Dawna Smith, who works in the chimp house, chugs up to the barn in a Volkswagen. "Get in," she calls to Grow. "I need you to come look at Pablo."  "What's wrong with him? He was fine last night."  "In."  Up at the chimp house, the 30-year-old, almost 200-pound chimp struggles to make himself comfortable in his nest—a pile of blankets on a 12-foot-high platform inside the chimp house. He can find no peace. First he sits, then he stands, repeating the process over and over: sitting, standing, sitting, standing. He wheezes constantly.  Since the day of his arrival five years ago, Pablo has been ill. One winter he developed a cough that X rays showed to be bronchitis. Medication helped, but each autumn Grow worries that Pablo's cough will return. Still, she has never seen him behave like this. She dashes up a spiral staircase to offer him more blankets, an antibiotic, and a Tylenol. The big-lipped chimp graciously accepts the blankets but spits out the pills. Grow runs out to find her husband, who is busy spreading a load of red cedar mulch someone has just donated to the farm. Allan's practice, largely cats and dogs, did not prepare him for the variety of animals with which he now shares his land and board. To prepare for the chimps' arrival, he spent a few days training at the New York University lab with veterinarian James Mahoney.  "What do you think is wrong with him?" Grow asks.  "He's dying," Allan says, staring into the cage.  Grow doesn't want to hear that. Her husband often acts on the premise that there is only so much one can do for an animal, especially a wild animal who will not permit a detailed physical exam. But Grow was raised to believe that she should go to extremes to help sick animals. Her father, an electrician, thought nothing of stopping his truck in heavy traffic to rescue a wounded seagull. Now, as Grow looks on, Allan phones Mahoney and leaves a message on his voice mail, then heads off to resume mulching.  Hours tick by. At lunch, Grow and her sister, employees, and volunteers sip soup and munch eggplant casserole in silence. When Allan comes in to wash up, Grow asks, "What do you think we should do?"  "What should we do?" Allan repeats. "We should wait and see how he feels tomorrow."  "Wait and see? If I were one of your patients, you think I'd want to hear that?"  "What do you want to do?" says Allan. "Tranquilize him?"  When Allan heads back outside after lunch, Grow asks him again what he thinks is wrong. He repeats the two words he uttered that morning. The words stab the air, and then he is gone.à Grow is left to ponder their meaning in a congress of women. Pablo can't be deathly ill, she and her staffers decide. He is only 30; captive chimps can live to be 60. Her sister dissents. "The thing is," Smith says in a measured tone, "Richard's always right."  Mahoney phones at 2 p.m. The big chimp is down, still breathing hard. He drank some juice with antibiotics but vomited it up. Mahoney offers possible diagnoses: pneumonia, a cardiac problem, a twisted intestine. Given Pablo's past, pneumonia seems likely. Allan is instructed to administer three injections, one after the other: an antibiotic, a diuretic, and cortisone for shock. If Pablo has pneumonia, he should feel better after the first shot. Allan drops the phone and dashes to get his bag.  In labs, monkeys and chimps are trained to present their arms for blood draws. Pablo had always resisted, so he was usually tranquilized—"knocked down," as the lab techs say, with a dart fired from an air pistol. Allan fears he'll have to break out the darts for the first time ever at Fauna. When Pablo sees the needle, he thrusts his arm out. Allan is stunned. "This guy never liked needles, but he gave me his arm. Didn't put up a fight."  Minutes after the injections, Pablo lies back and closes his eyes. His face is immobile; a black arm hangs limply off the side of his nest. Allan carefully unlocks the gate to the chimp enclosure, and Grow rushes up a ladder. She grabs Pablo's hand and feels a twitch. Life shudders out of the great ape's body. She begins to cry but manages to help carry the body to the floor. Allan confirms he's dead, and Grow insists that the humans leave the enclosure to allow the other chimps a chance to see Pablo.  Normally, when a lab chimp dies, he dies alone in a cage and is whisked away. Grow believes chimps should be allowed to witness everything. A couple of times Allan has performed surgery in the kitchen, where all the chimps could see him. "Someday, when I die," Grow says, "I want to be placed right here where they can all see me and know that I am gone."  So, as Grow and her staff sit weeping outside the enclosure, the chimps approach Pablo. Alone or in pairs, they tug at his arms, open his eyes, groom him, rub his swollen belly. Annie pours a cup of juice in his ear. Grow says it might be an attempt to annoy Pablo and wake him up. Before long, the chimps wander off, hooting. The hoots blossom into screams, and soon the walls of the chimp house echo with the sound of knuckles pounding steel. 

Regis, who also likes to draw and play a flute, loves to watch TV. The Playboy Channel is a perennial favorite with many of the chimps.

The night of Pablo's death, Allan conducts a hasty necropsy, but neither he nor his colleagues have had much experience handling a large and potentially infectious animal. His veterinary clinic is well-supplied with Tyvek suits and latex gloves but short on masks and goggles. Everything seems too small for Pablo's frame: the clinic's back door, the operating table, especially the freezer into which Allan and a sobbing Grow stuff his body when the procedure is finished.  Eighteen days later, after Grow has pleaded unsuccessfully with different agencies to perform an official necropsy, the Montreal health department presses a pathologist into service at the vet school in Saint-Hyacinthe. The immediate cause of death is listed as an acute lung infection, but the physician who examined the body also found an abdominal infection and mild hepatitis. Internally, the animal's organs were crisscrossed with thick, fibrous scars, most likely the remainders of various procedures. To do an animal biopsy, a technician uses a punch to clip out a chunk of tissue. The procedure leaves a large hole that, if infected, can take years to heal. Pablo was also vulnerable to infection on another front. Darts fired from an air pistol are, by definition, non-sterile; each penetration carries germs from the surface of an animal's skin into its body.  According to his research dossier, Pablo, known as Ch-377 at the New York University lab, had been darted 220 times, once accidentally in the lip. He had been subjected to 28 liver, two bone-marrow, and two lymph-node biopsies. His body was injected four times with test vaccines, one of them known to be a hepatitis vaccine. In 1993 he was injected with 10,000 times the lethal dose of HIV. The barrel-chested chimp had shrugged off AIDS and kept hepatitis at bay only to die of an infection aggravated by years of darts, needles, and biopsies.  "We always knew the chimps had a lot of problems," Grow said two months after Pablo's death. "But we always thought they were problems we could take care of—because they were on the outside. Now we are learning that there are a lot of things going on inside them that we may never know about. Annie's sick now. Jeannie's sick now. What happened to Pablo wasn't unusual; it was average."  Activists insist that animal-free science is already here—in the form of in vitro research, data gleaned from autopsies, clinical observation, and epidemiology. But the scientists who work with chimps say that the inoculations, biopsies, and knockdowns, though regrettable, are necessary. "I think the idea of moving to humans is nonsense," says Alfred Prince, the hematologist who heads chimpanzee research in Liberia. "Ethics committees in hospitals are getting tougher and tougher, and the work you can do in people is less and less. We will probably always need animal models. . . . I think the answer is, if you're going to do this work on chimps, you better take really good care of them." Other researchers, including primatologist Roger Fouts, believe that the days when we are willing to imperil an endangered species for our own sake may be numbered. Until then, research will proceed, and people like Gloria Grow will be left to deal with the results, as she did in January, when Annie, the grande dame of the chimp house, died. Her body is awaiting a necropsy. Then the body will be sent, like Pablo's, to a local crematory that donates its services to Fauna. Grow plans to bury some of the ashes of both animals at the sanctuary. This spring Jane Goodall will take the rest of the ashes with her to Tanzania to sprinkle in the forests of Gombe, where chimps dance to stop the rain. 

To learn more about the Fauna Foundation, go to their Web site: www.faunafoundation.org. Chimpanzee sanctuaries in the United States include the Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care (www.savethechimps.org) and Primarily Primates (www.primarilyprimates.org). Chimp Haven, a federally funded sanctuary that will provide homes for at least 200 chimps, is going to be built near Shreveport, Louisiana (www.chimphaven.org). To hear the case for animal research, see the Web site of the Foundation for Biomedical Research: www.fbresearch.org. Americans for Medical Advancement is a non-profit organization thatopposes biomedical research on scientific grounds.: www.curedisease.com

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