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Meet Debra Durham, Ph.D.: PCRM's New Expert in Animal Trauma

Debra Durham, Ph.D.In their natural habitat, chimpanzees form decades-long relationships with each other that begin in their youth. But what happens when chimpanzees are victims of captivity or experimentation and are deprived of these formative bonds? Debra Durham, Ph.D., who recently joined PCRM as a senior research scientist—and who has more than 10 years of experience working with primates—is uncovering the profound psychological effects these chimpanzees suffer.

Much of the research that Dr. Durham, a primatologist and ethologist who has a doctorate in animal behavior, is currently conducting at PCRM involves chimpanzees who have survived captivity in laboratories. Dr. Durham is working with PCRM director of research policy Hope Ferdowsian, M.D., M.P.H., and other collaborators to understand how trauma has affected chimpanzees. The preliminary data strongly suggest that chimpanzees suffer some of the same symptoms as human trauma victims, including those seen in generalized anxiety disorder, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“The genetic similarities between humans and chimpanzees have long been emphasized, but there are also amazing parallels in the make up of our psyches,” said Dr. Durham. “With a life span of up to 50 years or longer, the tragedy for captive chimpanzees is that even if we intervene early, they have often already developed conspicuous pathologies that may persist for decades.”

Dr. Durham’s work has direct implications for PCRM’s mission to replace the use of animals in medical research. In addition to her study of chimpanzee trauma, Dr. Durham will also use her expertise and passion for primates to engage the scientific community, policymakers, and the general public on animal welfare and ethics issues.

On October 27, Dr. Durham presented a poster entitled, "Dissolving Species Borders: The Critical Role of Animal Rights and Welfare in Public Health," at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association. On October 29, at the 27th annual UC Davis National Child Abuse and Neglect Conference, Dr. Durham presented two workshops: “Of Pachyderms and People: Trans-Species Theory of Trauma and Recovery” and “Kin Under the Skin: What We Are Learning About Trauma from Animal Experiences.”

Before joining PCRM, Dr. Durham worked with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) as a primate specialist and in laboratories at the University of California, Davis, and at the University of Washington in Seattle.

During her laboratory work, Dr. Durham was so disturbed by the suffering she witnessed—particularly the trauma experienced by infants who are separated from their mothers shortly after birth—that she decided to study the behavior and biology of primates in their natural habitats instead.

She spent three years living in a tent in a rain forest in Madagascar, where she investigated the effects of deforestation on endangered primates and taught students about animal behavior, ecology, and conservation issues. She has also participated in noninvasive studies of stress and reproduction in bears, elephants, elk, and a range of primates.

Following this experience, and after viewing video footage of workers’ abuse of primates at a laboratory owned by the international testing company Covance, she decided to put her extensive knowledge of primate behavior to work protecting primates in laboratories.

Dr. Durham is a member of the American Public Health Association, the Animals and Society Institute, and the International Primatological Society. She is a cofounder and vice president of the International Association for Animal Trauma and Recovery and associate director at the Kerulos Center for Animal Psychology.

Find out more about PCRM’s research initiatives.


PCRM Online, November 2008

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