Animal Behavior

Using Chimps as Guinea Pigs

Should We Be Using Endangered Chimpanzees As Medical-Research Subjects?

Great apes—chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans—will soon become exempt from medical research in the United States, if a U.S. congressman from Maryland gets his way. Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett recently introduced legislation that would phase out invasive medical research on apes in America.

Using Chimps as Guinea Pigs on the Grass
Using Chimps as Guinea Pigs on the Grass

All wild apes are listed as either Endangered or Critically Endangered animals by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Nine other countries as well as the European Union already forbid or restrict research on apes, which are the closest living relatives to humans, and have been demonstrated to possess many of our problem-solving abilities, including tool use.

Rep. Barlett, in an August 10 op-ed article for The New York Times, said that he comes by his knowledge of primate research first hand: he is a former U.S. Navy physiologist who helped develop respiratory devices for astronauts by testing them on monkeys.

“At the time, I believed such research was worth the pain inflicted on the animals. But in the years since, our understanding of its effect on primates, as well as alternatives to it, have made great strides, to the point where I no longer believe such experiments make sense — scientifically, financially or ethically. That’s why I have introduced bipartisan legislation to phase out invasive research on great apes in the United States,” Rep. Bartlett said in his Times essay.

Chimpanzees are the most widely utilized of the great apes in medical research. According to Rep. Bartlett, caging and experimenting on chimps stresses them in ways that are similar to the ways humans would be stressed under similar circumstances. He said that chimpanzees as susceptible to a variety of stress-related illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

Guinea Pigs on a Wooden Log
Guinea Pigs on a Wooden Log

Rep. Bartlett says that, not only would eliminating apes from medical research be the most humane thing to do, but that replacing chimps with computer modeling and other, more up-to-date, research techniques would also save money.

“. . . many new techniques are cheaper, faster and more effective, including computer modeling and the testing of very small doses on human volunteers,” Rep. Bartlett wrote in his essay. “In vitro methods now grow human cells and tissues for human biomedical studies, bypassing the need for whole animals.

“Such advances have led to a drop in primate research. Many federally owned chimpanzees were bred to support AIDS research, but later proved inferior to more modern technologies. As a result, most of the 500 federally owned chimpanzees are idling in warehouses. Ending chimpanzee research and retiring the animals to sanctuaries would save taxpayers about $30 million a year.”

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