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Drawing Ourselves into the Lives of Chimpanzees

By Debra Durham, Ph.D.
This opinion piece was published on Oct. 30, 2009, in The Orlando Sentinel.

I feel your pain. We've heard that phrase so often that it has become political shorthand for the human capacity for empathy. But human beings, it turns out, are hardly the only species capable of sharing another's emotions.

A recent study added to existing evidence that this capability originated more than 6 million years ago—before our species took a different path from our closest living relatives, chimpanzees.

As a primatologist, I know that these remarkable animals demonstrate empathy through a variety of behaviors. This study adds to the body of research finding that, like humans, chimpanzees can put themselves in the place of others and identify with them. The findings are especially timely as Congress begins to consider a bill that would protect these complex animals.

Researchers found that chimpanzees yawn when shown a computer animation of another chimpanzee yawning. Yawn contagion is one manifestation of empathy. Studies find that the same area of the brain is involved when reacting to a yawn and when considering others.

Chimpanzees constantly amaze us. We're enthralled by their complex emotions, distinct cultural traditions, and impressive language abilities. But as a nation, we still struggle to extend our compassion and empathy to them.

We keep these naturally social animals locked up in laboratories and other unnatural environments. We know they feel pain, yet we subject them to invasive procedures and infect them with deadly diseases. From interviews with chimpanzees trained in sign language, we know these animals want to be with their family and friends, but we keep them behind bars and prematurely separate infants from their mothers.

The United States is the only nation in the world to continue using chimpanzees in large-scale invasive experiments. Even in America, many chimpanzees in laboratories are essentially warehoused—no longer used in active protocols because they haven’t proved useful as models for human diseases, but still kept in laboratory cages.

The Great Ape Protection Act, legislation recently introduced in Congress, could finally phase out this practice. This critical bill would prohibit invasive experiments on chimpanzees and retire approximately 500 federally owned chimpanzees to permanent sanctuaries.

My colleague and I are conducting an observational study to better understand how trauma has affected chimpanzees who have survived captivity in laboratories. Based on pilot data, we've found that the chimpanzees have a high prevalence of symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, much like human victims of traumatic experiences.

During our ongoing study, we met an elderly chimpanzee named Negra. Negra was born in the wild in Africa, but for the vast majority of her life, she was used in hepatitis vaccine experiments and for breeding. And because of a clerical error, she was kept in solitary confinement for two years.

When Negra arrived at her sanctuary last year, her new caregivers noticed that she demonstrated limited interest in fellow chimpanzees. She often assumed a hunched posture and covered her head with a blanket. Negra sometimes retreated to places where she could be alone.

But sanctuary life is working wonders. Recent follow-up surveys suggest that Negra is exhibiting fewer symptoms and has become closer to caregivers and other chimpanzees. She is now surrounded by chimpanzees and humans who consider her feelings and respond to her emotional cues. They feel empathy toward her.

The passage of the Great Ape Protection Act would allow more chimpanzees like Negra to find peace and a chance to live the rest of their lives in a sanctuary. As we learn more about the roots of our own empathy, I hope we use this capacity for thoughtful, compassionate reactions to others' distress and suffering to help these incredible animals.

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


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