The federal government’s recent decision to suspend funding for new experiments on chimpanzees, and to re-evaluate all current studies, has just knocked out a big chunk of the wall that is the species barrier.
Chimpanzees used to be considered “others” — creatures who, despite their human-like qualities, were different enough for experimenters to use in violent and deadly crash tests, to infect with debilitating diseases, and, in a twisted attempt to make them more like us, teach them human sign language. Now the others are us.
The National Institutes of Health based its decision to halt funding for chimpanzee experiments on the conclusions of an expert panel convened by the Institute of Medicine whose express purpose was to examine the scientific validity of using chimpanzees. The committee was comprised primarily f scientists, including some animal experimenters, and determined that “most current biomedical research use of chimpanzees is not necessary.”
But make no mistake: The report and subsequent take-down of the chimpanzee grant gravy train has its roots in compassion.
The question of scientific validity was raised only after the massive outcry over NIH’s decision to return more than 200 retired chimpanzees, many of them elderly, from quasi-retirement in a facility in Alamogordo, N.M., back into prison-like conditions in laboratories for use in infectious disease studies. NIH said they weren’t really retired; they just hadn’t been used for more than 10 years. The contract for their care was nearing its end. Why not just stick them back in isolation cages, infect them with painful, debilitating conditions, stab them with needles, watch their demise and, essentially, use them up until they die?
Because it’s wrong, was the response from the public, animal groups, many scientists and some legislators. Why must these wonderful, sensitive individuals, who have already been subjected to more physical pain and emotional deprivation than any being of any species should have to endure, be returned to the hell they had already miraculously survived? Why must the United States be the only nation on the entire globe, with the exception of tiny Gabon, still to use chimpanzees as though nothing about them mattered but their perceived usefulness as tools?
Last New Year’s Eve, in the face of this outcry, NIH announced that it was suspending the transfer of the chimpanzees (though tragically, at least 14 had already been sent to a laboratory) and had asked the Institute of Medicine to investigate the importance – or lack thereof – of chimpanzees to research. The committee stated that it would not deal with the ethics of the issue.
But here’s the elephant in the living room: The question was only asked because so many people, indeed so many nations, believe it is unethical to experiment on chimpanzees.
While the committee found that nearly every use of chimpanzees in laboratories today is scientifically unjustifiable, the immorality of the practice was the subtext. At the briefing during which the Institute of Medicine announced its findings, the committee chair bioethicist Jeffrey Kahn of Johns Hopkins University, even stated, “We understand and feel compelled by the moral cost of using chimpanzees in research.”
Chimpanzees are so like us that most people cannot ignore their desire to be free from subjugation.
Like the Berlin Wall, the barriers that separate humans from all the other species, including those who don’t look like us at all, will crumble. Perhaps one day, and I hope not too far from now, the cages and other implements of animal experimentation will, like the Wall that once separated one group of nations from another, be found only in the Smithsonian and other museums.
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