Chimpanzees used in scientific and medical research
are subjected to a great deal: fed drugs for testing, infected
with disease, and sometimes sedated for the numerous blood
draws they endure.
Ryan yawns while watching onlookers from a metal barrier
behind the living quarters at the Save the Chimps sanctuary
outside Fort Pierce, Florida.
Scientists are questioning the benefits of chimp research,
just as the United States is planning to restart such work
after a 10-year moratorium. And while the usefulness of
performing experiments on chimpanzees is debated, some things
are clear: The animals often suffer mental distress over the
treatment and often have shortened life spans. McClatchy
Newspapers correspondent Chris Adams reports.
Donovan the chimp transformed from a friendly ape who "adapts
well to peers" to one who beat his female cage-mate so
aggressively they had to be separated.
Lira became a "chronic hair-plucker", with large barren
patches on her body.
Bobby bit and mutilated his own arm, leaving permanent scars.
He was so depressed that he slept sitting up, facing the wall
of his cage.
The debate about medical testing on chimpanzees often
revolves around the physical impact on the chimps - week
after week of liver biopsies or year after year of being
infected with HIV or hepatitis.
But an examination by McClatchy Newspapers of the
chimp-research world found that, in addition to a physical
toll, the testing life can have a significant impact on a
chimp's mental state.
For the 180 chimpanzees that live at the Alamogordo
Primate Facility, on an Air Force base in New Mexico, the world
of research looms large: For the past 10 years, they've been
kept out of research; now the National Institutes of Health is
trying to move them to a research facility in Texas, where
they'd be used in studies on hepatitis and possibly other
The science of chimp research is dicey. The United States is
virtually alone in the world in pursuing it, and many
scientists say the chimps' value as a medical model is
declining. Chimps are among humans' closest genetic cousins,
and given their range of emotions and their level of
understanding, researchers themselves afford chimps special
protections that other research animals don't get, even
According to the National Research Council, the public
"expects a high level of respect for the animals", given the
"special connection of chimpanzees to humans".
For the chimps, research can be lonely and debilitating; some
end up with mental ailments including post-traumatic stress
disorder or depression. Sometimes the symptoms will ease once
the testing ends, but sometimes they stick with a chimp for
"Chimpanzees depend on close physical contact. They love
their comforts, and like to stretch out on a nice soft bed of
grass. They make their own choices all the time," chimp
researcher Jane Goodall said.
Bobby holds on to a metal barrier. Photos by MCT.
"None of these things can in any possible way be
experienced by a laboratory chimp. I've been in quite a lot of
medical research labs, and the truth is I wish I hadn't,
because they haunt me."
The researchers who handle the chimps disagree. They say the
chimps are treated well and humanely, oversight panels ensure
that only necessary research is performed on them, and
they're given space to move and play.
John VandeBerg, who oversees the primate facility at the
Texas Biomedical Research Institute, said the chimps were
treated compassionately and that life in the lab was good.
The chimps, he said, even have televisions. They like to
watch animal movies.
The effort to understand the chimps' minds has grown in the
One chimp who helped illustrate the impact of research was
Billy; his story was chronicled in the medical journal
Developmental Psychology in 2009.
Raised as an entertainer - working the birthday party circuit
- Billy lived compatibly with humans and had a strong bond
with his owners before he was given over to researchers at