Trees and Chimpanzees

My paper on the great apes is nearing completion...and boy I wish I had more black and white views about this. It would make things easier if I thought chimpanzees had basic rights just like ours, and for that reason, could never be used in biomedical research. Without thinking of them that way, it's difficult to make the case that chimpanzees should be completely off limits, no matter what. Not just when people are doing hideously cruel experiments, or when they're doing pointless, badly designed experiments, or when they're violating the relevant animal welfare guidelines, but permanently, totally, no matter what. How do you argue for that?

It sounds shallow, but I think there's a lot of force to the argument that we simply value chimpanzees in a special way. They're our nearest non-human relatives, they have minds fairly similar to ours, and they reveal interesting things about human origins. Given all that, we want them to be living free lives of their own in the wild, and we're repelled by the thought of chimpanzees (so much like us!) being inoculated with our diseases, repeatedly biopsied, isolated part of the time...and treated as tools for human benefit.

The research advocate will now let out a loud cry. "But what about the people who won't be saved from serious diseases (hepatitis C is the main one studied using chimpanzees), if the NIH is forced to retire its whole chimpanzee population?!" What possible answer can be given to that? Maybe it's not so hard. There are lots of things we will not do to advance medicine. We won't sell off the National Gallery's art collection, for example. We won't offer Dubai the copy of the Declaration of Independence that sits in Washington.

To change the subject slightly...I read somewhere (does this ring a bell with anyone?) that the regal trees that line many French roads predictably distract drivers with their shadows and cause accidents. You could chop them down and save some number of lives every year. But no, losing the trees is not something we're prepared to do to save lives.

When we declare art, the original Declaration, and trees off limits, nobody feels like any one-to-one comparison is being made. It's not "people or art" or "people or documents" or "people or trees." We value people, we value trees...and never the twain shall meet. Surely we can spare chimpanzees in like fashion. It's not a matter of chimpanzees and people becoming equals, any more than we have to think people and trees are equals, when we leave the trees alone.

NB: I don't think chimpanzees are exactly like trees, paintings, or documents. Not even close, because we have direct obligations to them, and not to trees, paintings, or documents. It's interesting, though, that if you leave that out of the picture, you may actually get the strongest possible argument for ending experimentation on the great apes.

My paper is going to center on a real world drama that just recently got resolved.  200 chimpanzees living in Alamogordo, New Mexico, had been requested by the San Antonio National Primate Facility, to be used in Hepatitis C research (they are already using about 160).  The 200 had been saved from the notorious labs of the Coulston Foundation, which the USDA charged with numerous animal welfare violations in the 80s and 90s.  They live in a federal sanctuary, built just for them on the Holloman Air Force base in Alamogordo.  After ten years of retirement, they were going to be sent back to active duty as "medical models."  Governor Bill Richardson protested, Jane Goodall and the Humane Society protested, lots of animal rights organizations protested...and last week the NIH changed  its mind.  The 200 will remain in Alamogordo while the National Academy of Sciences studies the matter for two years.

It's interesting how the narrative here makes all the difference.  Nobody's having a fit about the 160 chimpanzees already being used for biomedical research in San Antonio.  What captures attention is the drama of the Alamogordo animals being snatched out of a safe haven.  They escaped research, only to be sent back? Now that's intolerable.  

Well, I'm not immune to a good story. It is intolerable.  I'm glad the Alamogordo 200 aren't being shipped to San Antonio.  But now the NAS has to put an end to the problems of all the rest.  At this point only the US and Gabon (Gabon?!) still support experimentation on chimpanzees. The UK stopped it in 1997, and the whole EU last year. It's time for the US to catch up with the rest of the world.

It's a wrench to change, to make an explicit sacrifice of potential discoveries. But once we've changed, I don't think the loss will be noticeable.  We don't experiment on people, and never notice the research advances we've forfeited.  Those advances are just...absent, not there. That's what it will be like if we stop invasive research on chimpanzees.

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