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The Physicians Committee

Behind Bars for Longer than We’ve Been Alive

By Sarah Baeckler, M.S., J.D., and Debra Durham, Ph.D.

This opinion piece was published on Feb. 5, 2010, in The Seattle Times.

Jamie plucked her own hair out from sheer boredom. Negra underwent numerous liver biopsies. Foxie had five children, but they were all taken from her as infants. These stories are all too common for chimpanzees used in biomedical experiments.

But Jamie, Negra, and Foxie were released from a laboratory and now spend their days in the enriching environment of Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest just over Snoqualmie Pass in Cle Elum. As primatologists who study and care for these amazing animals, we know just how desperate the situation is for the hundreds of chimpanzees who are still in laboratories.

The United States is the only nation in the world that continues to fund and use chimpanzees in large-scale invasive experiments. Many people would be shocked to know that laboratories are allowed to keep chimpanzees locked up in metal cages the size of a kitchen table.

Now we have a chance to help. The Great Ape Protection Act, a bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last spring, would phase out invasive experiments on chimpanzees and release the approximately 500 chimpanzees owned by the federal government to permanent sanctuaries.

The bill, H.R. 1326, has strong bipartisan support. Rep. Dave Reichert is an original sponsor, and Rep. Jay Inslee recently joined 140 other representatives as a co-sponsor. The long list of supporters means the bill is more likely to get the attention it deserves, but it still needs more co-sponsors, and it needs a companion bill in the Senate.

Countries from Austria to Japan, Belgium to Liberia and many other nations banned or abandoned invasive experiments on chimpanzees years ago. In America, many chimpanzees in laboratories are essentially warehoused. They are no longer used in active protocols because they haven't proved useful as models for human diseases, so they’re left in laboratory cages to languish. Some have spent as many as 50 years behind bars. This is longer than either of us has been alive.

Toward the end of Jamie's, Negra's and Foxie's time as biomedical testing subjects, they were not being used in active experiments. They sat, warehoused, in cages within a windowless basement. The private Pennsylvania facility that owned them finally decided to get out of the chimpanzee research business. In June 2008, they came to the sanctuary pale from lack of sun exposure, their muscles atrophied from lack of exercise. And they were the “lucky” ones.

Over the past year and a half, we’ve witnessed remarkable recoveries. Jamie, now the leader of the group, no longer plucks her own hair out. Negra, captured in Africa as an infant in the early 1970s, spends much of her time with a blanket covering her head and shoulders, looking out over the valley—a small comfort for an aging chimpanzee. Foxie carries a beloved troll doll around everywhere she goes.

Humans have been enthralled by chimpanzees’ obvious emotions and distinct cultural traditions for decades. Jane Goodall’s studies of wild chimpanzees first captured our imaginations more than 40 years ago. Chimpanzees continue to amaze us. But as a nation, we still struggle to extend our compassion to them.

Time is running out. If we don’t take action now, hundreds of chimpanzees may never leave their cages. We must urge our representatives to support H.R. 1326 and our senators to introduce a companion bill. This is our chance to pave the way for more happy endings like those at Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest.

Sarah Baeckler, M.S., J.D., is the executive director of Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest.

Debra Durham, Ph.D., is a primatologist and ethologist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.



Photo courtesy Chimpanzee
Sanctuary Northwest


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