Chimps in Laboratories
The vast majority of chimpanzees in captivity in the United States are kept in biomedical research laboratories. Research on chimpanzees began in the US in the 1920s, when psychologist Robert M. Yerkes began studying the behavior of a chimpanzee and a bonobo whom he had purchased. His work expanded and led to the establishment of a primate lab at Yale University, which then moved to Orange Park, Florida, and ultimately ended up at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, where Yerkes National Primate Research Center is still located today. Although the bulk of Robert Yerkes’ own research was on behavior and psychology, the chimps were also viewed as ideal biomedical research subjects by the 1940s.
In the 1950s, the Air Force and NASA captured 65 young chimpanzees from Africa to use in early space research and testing. These chimpanzees and their descendents ultimately formed the basis of a chimpanzee breeding and research colony at Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo, New Mexico. Around the country, other primate research centers were being established around the same time. With no restrictions on capturing and importing wild chimps from Africa, some chose to acquire chimps for their research purposes and established sizable colonies.
In the 1970s, with the passage of the Endangered Species Act, it became illegal to import wild-caught chimpanzees into the US. But only wild chimpanzees were considered “endangered”. Captive chimpanzees were designated as “threatened”, allowing their use in invasive and sometimes lethal biomedical research projects to continue. The chimp pipeline from Africa cut off, labs expanded their breeding programs to ensure a continuous supply of chimpanzees.
In the 1980s, AIDS emerged, and chimpanzees were viewed as an ideal research model for this new, deadly disease. There was an even greater emphasis on breeding to produce plenty of subjects for AIDS research. Also in the 1980s, toxicologist Fred Coulston established the laboratory that would eventually become the Coulston Foundation in Alamogordo, New Mexico, not far from the chimp research colony on Holloman Air Force Base, with a particular focus on chimpanzees as research subjects.
By the 1990s, there may have been as many as 1500 chimpanzees living in at least 11 different research laboratories across the United States. Nearly half of them were under the control of The Coulston Foundation, which was now overseeing the care and use of the chimpanzees on Holloman Air Force Base as well as its own colony of chimpanzees. The early excitement of the chimpanzee model for AIDS research was waning when it was discovered that chimps do not respond to HIV the way humans do, but there was strong interest in their use for hepatitis research. The Air Force was looking to get out of the chimp research business. A major lab called LEMSIP closed its doors. Chimp research was becoming increasingly controversial as the reality of lab life for chimpanzees began to be exposed, particularly at The Coulston Foundation which was cited multiple times for negligence that resulted in chimpanzee deaths. Laboratories found they had a surplus of very expensive and controversial chimpanzees on their hands, and breeding was curtailed in some labs, but not all.
By 2000, the use of chimps in biomedical research began to see a decline, although their use as models for hepatitis C research continued to interest scientists. Over the past decade there has been a modest decline in the estimated number of chimps in living in research laboratories, from 1500 to 1100, largely attributed to the transfer of chimps from labs to sanctuaries such as Save the Chimps, as well as deaths of chimps in labs and an overall reduction in breeding. Federal funding for chimpanzee breeding has been curtailed, but this does not eliminate the possibility that labs with other sources of funding will continue to breed their chimps. Chimp research is still ongoing, and the US is currently the only Western nation to experiment on chimpanzees. There is currently an effort underway by animal welfare and animal rights groups to ban invasive biomedical research in the United States, as has been done in other countries. This effort is controversial, with expected opposition from biomedical research groups, but with the added concerns over the fate of the chimps in labs should the measure pass, as well as fears that chimp research will increase in other nations with even lower standards of care than those demonstrated by US labs.
Life in a Lab
Chimps kept in research labs are used in a multiple array of research projects and in highly varied housing conditions. Life in a lab is often monotonous, with little variety of food or activity. Chimps may be used in disease research such as hepatitis, malaria, respiratory viruses, or other illnesses, experimental surgeries, toxicology studies, vaccine studies, and other areas of invasive biomedical research. They may also be used in cognitive research, which examines their intelligence, thinking, language ability, and planning skills. Such studies may have an invasive component, such as anesthesia for MRIs or other brain scans. Chimps in labs may live alone in a 5’x5’x7’ cage, alone in a larger cage, together with one other chimpanzee, in a small group of 4-6 chimps, or in a relatively large group of chimps with outdoor areas as large as a quarter of an acre.
Since its inception, Save the Chimps has rescued 285 chimps from laboratory life, and all of them were at some point under the control of The Coulston Foundation. Meet Rebel, whose life before his retirement at Save the Chimps is not unlike that of so many hundreds of chimpanzees used in biomedical research.