The director of the MD Anderson Cancer Center’s animal research facility is expressing opposition to the NIH‘s recent plan to move 160 research chimpanzees currently housed at the research institution to an animal sanctuary in Louisiana. Chris Abee, director of the facility in Bastrop, recently told the Houston Chronicle that, in spite of the NIH’s best intentions, even the federal facility in Louisiana cannot provide the same level of care and treatment for the chimpanzees than can be provided at MD Anderson.
MD Anderson’s Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research is also a federally-funded facility for chimpanzees, and has been in operation since 1975. The center, according to The Republic, “spends about $17,000 a year on each chimp and devotes about 12 of its 381 acres to the animals, including open-air corrals and geodesic domes in which the chimps can play and forage,” and that, “. . . the center’s veterinary care involves issues of aging – arthritis, heart disease – not any effects of research. He said the chimps are the subjects only of studies observing their behavior.”
Conversely, The Republic article notes that, “Before the chimps could be moved to the Louisiana sanctuary, Chimp Haven, it would have to be expanded. That could take years, said NIH program director Jim Anderson. ‘There are a lot of options to be considered.’”
Texas Life Sciences Researcher Argue More Work Needed Involving Chimpanzees and Research
Abee also continued the argument that many are making in the research community that, in spite of the NIH’s recent declaration that research chimpanzees are no longer needed for research, there is still an intense need for them in continuing research:
“We wouldn’t have a vaccine for hepatitis B without chimpanzees,” Abee explained. “Our best hope for a hepatitis C vaccine is chimpanzees since there’s no other animal model for it. If a loved one of yours is one of the 15,000 people in the United States who die annually of hepatitis C, the research might be more important to you.”
Abee’s argument echoes earlier statements from the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, which also reminded the public of the key role that research chimpanzees played in hepatitis b research alone, and that there is still a great deal more work yet to be done in the life sciences that simply cannot be conducted on humans.
The Politics of Research Chimpanzees
In spite of many in the science community voicing concern over the NIH’s recent decision, as well as the FWS’ proposal to count research chimpanzees as endangered, thus effectively removing them as an option for research, government and federally-funded policy-making organizations continue to ram through new policy changes, which appear to be fueled in large part by animal rights activists. In spite of the fact that state-of-the-art facilities at research institutions such as MD Anderson or Texas Biomed have demonstrated that they have the funding, facilities, and expertise to take better care of research chimpanzees than many of the proposed animal sanctuaries, “Kathleen Conlee, the president for animal research Humane Society, which has pushed for the retirement of chimps to a federal sanctuary, said she thinks the retired chimps shouldn’t continue being kept at a lab.”
This sentiment seems rooted in a similar one expressed by FWS Director Dan Ashe, who conflates the plight of captive chimpanzees to that of their counterparts in the wild, saying of the FWS’ new proposals to make captive chimpanzees endangered, “The most important thing about this is it brings attention to the plight of chimpanzees in the wild.”
There is no doubt that those seeking to protect captive chimpanzees have only the best intentions in mind for the animals. However, given the glaring lack of support for retiring research chimpanzees onto sanctuaries like the one in Louisiana, as well as the clear need for continued to research to save what potentially amounts to millions of human lives over the next century, the current efforts may do more harm than good to people and chimpanzees in the long run.