Chimpanzee Research: Your Tax Dollars at Worst

By on March 4, 2009 with 0 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

Today, I led a press conference at our Washington, D.C. headquarters announcing the details of The HSUS’s latest long-term undercover investigation, at the New Iberia Research Center (NIRC) near Lafayette, La., one of the nation’s largest primate laboratories. NIRC has been a dead-end destination for 325 chimpanzees, nearly one-third of all chimps housed in American laboratories, and also to approximately 6,000 other primates. It’s like a city of primates, but they are all incarcerated even though they are completely innocent of any crime. Yet men and women do terrible things to them for reasons the animals cannot comprehend.

It pained me to screen the video for the assembled press, with the images recorded by a brave HSUS investigator who went undercover as a laboratory technician for a remarkable nine months. But we had to show the video to expose what happens behind the typically impregnable doors of the laboratory.

Chimpanzee at New Iberia Research Center, site of HSUS undercover investigation
© The HSUS
Our investigation shows routine abuse and psychological torment.

And tonight at 11:35 p.m. EST, ABC’s "Nightline" is running a lengthy treatment of the issue, and ABC posted a good portion of its story this morning. I am so grateful to ABC correspondent Lisa Fletcher for generating such hard-hitting investigative journalism and exposing the issue to millions of viewers. Please tune in, and tell your friends and family members to watch. It is, to be sure, an unpleasant subject, but we must have the facts in order to drive change.

President Obama has selected new leaders at the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and I am confident they will treat the matter with the seriousness it deserves. In fact, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a strong statement today, again reflecting his sensitivity to animal welfare issues. “In light of the video evidence presented today, I am ordering a thorough investigation of animal welfare practices at New Iberia Research Center,” said the Secretary. “If the allegations prove to be true, the American public can expect the perpetrators to be held fully accountable. I take the protection of animals very seriously, and will do my utmost to fully enforce the Animal Welfare Act.”

Our investigation revealed that NIRC grossly flouts federal regulations on the care and treatment of primates. Our investigative report alleges at least 338 possible violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act. And it’s all happening thanks to the largesse of taxpayers, with the Public Health Service providing $48.4 million for primate research and maintenance at NIRC since 2000.

Some of the animals were struck or hit, or were sedated in ways that caused them to fall off high perches and slam onto the concrete floor. But what caused me the most anguish was witnessing animals driven to mutilation—biting themselves and even tearing flesh with their hands. Some live in group settings, while others languish in small cages, isolated from others and going mad.

The deficiencies at NIRC include wholly inadequate housing and enrichment standards, but that’s just the beginning of the problems. The mistreatment of chimpanzees there rivals what one might expect at the worst roadside zoo. With its endlessly repeated routines of deprivation, isolation and mishandling of chimpanzees, NIRC resembles nothing so much as a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder ward at a veteran’s hospital. Our footage shows indoor enclosures teeming with frustrated, anguished male chimpanzees, juveniles reduced to stereotypic rocking after separation from their mothers, and mothers with infants crammed into cages—in one cage, five mothers with five infants and one male. In 2004 and 2005 the USDA cited NIRC for rampant overcrowding, but shockingly, in each instance the agency extended the deadline for compliance.

Chimpanzee at New Iberia Research Center, site of HSUS undercover investigation
© The HSUS
One of 325 chimpanzees at NIRC.

Hanging over this entire situation is the question of whether it is even possible to house and utilize chimpanzees humanely in laboratories. An increasing number of Americans care about these issues. One poll showed 90 percent believe it unacceptable to confine chimpanzees individually in standard cages (five feet by five feet by seven feet), while 71 percent believe that chimpanzees in the laboratory for more than 10 years should be sent to sanctuary, and 54 percent believe it is unacceptable for chimpanzees to “undergo research which causes them to suffer for human benefit.”

Experiments on chimpanzees are under scrutiny for the financial obligations, not just our ethical ones. A large number of chimpanzees in laboratories today, like many of those at NIRC, aren’t being used but just warehoused. Our government spends up to an estimated $25 million per year on chimpanzee maintenance and research. NIH is funding chimpanzee breeding activities at NIRC, even though the federal agency has adopted a permanent ban on breeding.

There is a reason that ethologists like Jane Goodall have supported the worldwide prohibition on the use of chimpanzees in harmful research. The things that we’ve learned about the behavior, emotional capacities, and cognitive abilities of great apes challenge us to exhibit more restraint in our dealings with them. The U.S. Congress is poised to take up this moral challenge with the reintroduction of the Great Ape Protection Act tomorrow, to stop the breeding, to protect great apes from harmful research, and to retire government chimpanzees to appropriate sanctuaries. At least four of the chimpanzees at NIRC—Karen, Lady Bird, Sandy, and Julius, all trapped in the wild—have been in captivity since 1961, when the first American POW was taken in Vietnam. It may be that most of the approximately 1,000 chimpanzees in American laboratories will have to wait a little longer. But with respect to these and several dozen other elders at NIRC, we ought to apply the honorable principle of “first in, first out.” That’s why The HSUS is calling for the immediate retirement of all wild-caught chimpanzees still held at NIRC, and, after that, the retirement of all other chimpanzees born in 1980 or earlier, nationwide.

In 1906, Ota Benga, a Batwa tribesman from the Congo, was put on display in the Bronx Zoo in New York alongside an orangutan. We now look back in horror at the arrogance and cruelty of the people who put Benga on display. Not so far in the future, it may be equally hard to contemplate that we confined chimpanzees in laboratories for decades and denied them their peace on God’s earth.

Watch the video and take action for chimps

Animal Research and Testing

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