Consider the chimps

Ryan yawns while watching onlookers from a metal barrier behind the living quarters at the Save the Chimps sanctuary outside Fort Pierce, Florida.
Ryan yawns while watching onlookers from a metal barrier behind the living quarters at the Save the Chimps sanctuary outside Fort Pierce, Florida.
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.

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 ailments.

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 monkeys.

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 life.

"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.
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 past decade.

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 age 15.