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Torture Discussion Should Include Our Treatment of Chimpanzees

By Hope Ferdowsian, M.D., M.P.H.

I first learned about torture when I was 9 years old. My father helped his family escape Iran because of concerns that they would be captured, imprisoned, and tortured for their religious beliefs.

Today, as a physician who treats survivors of torture, I have patients whose stories are all too similar to those I heard as a child. And sadly, I still hear terrible accounts of torture through my dad.

That's why the pride I have as an American grew when the Obama administration committed to closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. I breathed a sigh of relief at the admission that abuses such as waterboarding are torture.

But as our country comes to grips with how we treat human prisoners, I believe it’s also time to reconsider how we treat our closest living relatives--chimpanzees--when they are forced to live in captivity.

My concerns were amplified recently when the federal government cited New Iberia Research Center, the largest primate research center in the United States, for violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

Chimpanzees are remarkably similar to us in their capacity to form social bonds, family, and culture. Like us, they are empathic and can be altruistic. Perhaps most importantly, they suffer as we do.

Torture leaves many scars. Injuries are not only physical, though. All too frequently, human survivors suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or other psychiatric disorders.

Post-traumatic stress disorder has also been diagnosed in chimpanzees. As a result of their use in research, chimpanzees are taken from their mothers at an early age, deprived of normal relationships, and subjected to repeated physical trauma. In a purely observational study, my colleagues and I demonstrated that chimpanzees previously used in experiments display signs of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other anxiety disorders.

Recently, I read about chimpanzees kept in cages smaller than the size of a table, deprived of ordinary social contact, and subjected to grotesque abuses. They were intoxicated with psychotropic drugs and covered in corn syrup to see if this would stimulate sexual activity between the chimpanzees despite their barren confinement. One chimpanzee was referred to by laboratory personnel as "The Lump" because he was so depressed and would not move. I can’t imagine the humiliation and pain he must have suffered.

Despite the intention of an amendment to the Animal Welfare Act in 1985, the psychological well-being of chimpanzees cannot be supported in a laboratory environment.

Today, approximately 1,000 chimpanzees live in laboratories in the United States. Although some laboratories have improved physical conditions for chimpanzees, a recent undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the United States demonstrated that New Iberia Research Center grossly violated the welfare of nonhuman primates, including chimpanzees.

The United States and Gabon are the only countries still using chimpanzees for invasive research. One reason is that, although they share approximately 99 percent of our DNA, chimpanzees differ significantly from us in genetic expression and physiology. These differences make chimpanzees a poor model for human diseases.

More than two decades of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) vaccine research using chimpanzees has failed to produce a human vaccine against HIV. Instead, HIV research involving chimpanzees has provided misleading information, resulting in harm to humans. Research funding would be better spent on modern testing methods.

The Great Ape Protection Act, recently reintroduced in Congress, would phase out invasive research on chimpanzees. This overdue legislation would prohibit isolation, social deprivation, and other procedures detrimental to the health and psychological well-being of chimpanzees. It would also require the release of federally owned chimpanzees to sanctuaries and make permanent the federal moratorium on breeding chimpanzees for research.

A couple of years ago, I was asked to testify at the hearing of a woman who I evaluated for evidence of torture. After she was granted asylum, she whispered in my ear that she was finally free--despite the fact that she had contracted HIV as a result of the trauma she endured. I've never admired a woman more.

I also can't help but wish for the day that chimpanzees like "The Lump" are free to live out the rest of their lives with the dignity they deserve. What an even prouder nation we’d be.

Hope Ferdowsian, M.D., M.P.H., is director of research policy for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Hope Ferdowsian, M.D., M.P.H.
Hope Ferdowsian, M.D., M.P.H.

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