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January 04, 2012

Chimps Get a Break

  • The U.S. Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies should be congratulated for its thoughtful conclusions concerning the use of chimpanzees in a range of NIH research projects. After a careful and in-depth study of the issue, the IOM last month issued a report entitled “Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research: Assessing the Necessity.”

    The IOM stated, “given that chimpanzees are so closely related to humans and share similar behavioral traits, the National Institutes of Health should allow their use as subjects in biomedical research only under stringent conditions including the absence of any other suitable model and inability to ethically perform the research on people … In addition, use of these animals should be permissible only if forgoing their use will prevent or significantly hinder advances necessary to prevent or treat life-threatening or debilitating conditions … Based on these criteria, chimpanzees are not necessary for most biomedical research.”

    The IOM goes on to point out that the “NIH also should limit the use of chimpanzees in behavioral research to studies that provide otherwise unattainable insights into normal and abnormal behavior, mental health, emotion, or cognition … NIH should require these studies to be performed only on acquiescent animals using techniques that are minimally invasive and are applied in a manner that minimizes pain and distress. Animals used in either biomedical or behavioral studies must be maintained in appropriate physical and social environments or in natural habitats.”

    It’s important to emphasize that the IOM does not call for a complete ban on the use of chimps in research. What it does is lay out a humane roadmap, long overdue in some cases.

    As a former graduate biological anthropology student, I have taken courses that explored primate physiology and behavior. Many of my assigned readings focused on chimpanzees and the other great apes. Although I have never met a chimpanzee face-to-face in the wild, I have visited many zoos and wildlife parks over the years where chimpanzees lived in various states of captivity. On a number of occasions for my anthro and animal behavior courses, I assumed the role of observer of chimp activities and wrote reports for my classes. Granted that I was always carrying out my studies in artificial environments, I saw enough to realize that chimpanzees are truly, and significantly, different from most other animals.

    Each year we seem to be greeted with a new research report on the intelligence of chimpanzees. Most recently it was revealed that some chimps actually fashion a small branch so that it has a sharp point—in essence, they are making a spear that they then use to hunt and kill small prosimians (for food) living inside trees. These and other types of behaviors have led many primatologists to conclude that chimpanzees are highly intelligent.

    Partially based on these and other attributes, the IOM issued its report. The Institute also cited the development of cell-based technologies and other animal models that make the use of chimps unnecessary in specific research projects.

    I fully understand that opinions, pro and con, on the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research make for a controversial issue. From my point of view, it would be ideal if one day we no longer need to rely on these unique and magnificent primates as research subjects. But that day probably remains way ahead in the future. For now, I applaud the IOM report.

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