Chimpanzee testing era ends at controversial US lab

Photo: Shutterstock

Washington Post science writer Brian Vastag reports on the story of the last four chimps that remain at a controversial research facility in Maryland. Bioqual has been experimenting on chimpanzees for 30 years. Soon, that era will end, as part of "a historic shift away from using apes in medical experiments."

On Monday morning, a truck hauled six chimps from Bioqual. Last week, five others were removed. The last four, including Tiffany and Torian, will depart later this summer. They are returning to where they were born — the much larger New Iberia Research Center, part of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette — where they will be available for more research before they’re retired — someday — to a sanctuary.

“This is another indication that chimpanzee research is on the decline,” said Kathleen Conlee of the Humane Society of the United States, which has painted Bioqual’s chimp research as unethical.

While about 1,000 research chimps live in the United States — down from 1,500 in 1997 — a landmark report from the influential Institute of Medicine (IOM) last December labeled nearly all chimpanzee research as scientifically unjustified.

Read the rest here. And, watch this previously-Boinged May 2012 PBS NewsHour piece on the ethics of chimp research, and the facility where the "retiring" Bioqual chimps will go to live out their remaining days.


    1. Probably because it was genuinely hard to find a substitute for some applications vital to human health. In addition to the obvious ethical issues, chimps can and occasionally do rip peoples faces off with their bare hands (even “pet” chimps: ); only a madman would make a career out of sticking them with needles unless they genuinely thought that they were doing some good.

      1.  Inertia plays a significant role. Once a process is entrenched, stopping it completely (let alone changing course) requires overcoming many obstacles. And people who are involved in the process are more likely to justify their actions, resulting in a climate of acceptance.

      2.  Hey, guess what! Apes don’t like being ‘pets’ aka slaves. I’m sure they like it more than being in a jail and experimented on, but they are still away from other chimpanzees.

        Guess what also! I’m sure there’s many humans who would be glad to be tested on in exchange for money. And that’s of their own free will!

        1. They may be technically perfect. “Unfortunately” there are tons of ethical issues.  But I’m sure the US prison industry will catch up sooner or later.

          1. I wouldn’t be so blind as to pretend that it’s as straightforward as I make out – however I think ‘ethical’ is a fuzzy word in this context – is it really less ethical to use humans than apes? If so, why? For me at least, the ethics remain the same, its the rationalisation that changes, and laws/rights. If apes had rights then it would be equally unethical. So that indicates to me that the ethics in this are in fact defined by the rules – not by any kind of objective moral standpoint, which is where I derive my ethics.

            I think on the most part that if the illness is serious enough that there will be plenty of willing volunteers; there are scores of people with debilitating illnesses that fight to get into drug trials . If the illness isn’t particularly serious then perhaps we need to consider not killing and maiming animals in the pursuit to irradiate it. And in the case of cosmetics they can go fuck themselves.

            I’m over simplifying, I know, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to move toward a better model that takes the selfish (and technically completely unnecessary, arguably damaging) pursuit of extending our lives out of the hands of unwilling animals.

          2. @NathanHornby:disqus Yes, it less ethical. Humans are humans, apes are apes.  Apes are sufficiently different from other non-human mammals (not to mention  vertebrates) to treat them differently, but that doesn’t make them human or near-human. I’ll leave cosmetics out.   We’ve already have cosmetics, any new one to not seriously help humanity.

            About your idea for volunteers: Say you got 4 volunteers, all expecting to die within three months. Too actually check if the new drug works, two of them will have to get a placebo.

  1. Funny, the German word “qual” translates to “Torture”, so “Bioqual” would actually translate to “Biotorture”. Fits perfectly.

      1. Is a toddler a person? Cause last I heard, chimps and toddlers were considered intellectually on par.

        …the last four chimps that remain…

        I know either is correct, but it always bugs me when folks say ‘that’ instead of ‘who’. Still bugs me when the subject is non-human, when they’re complex enough to have individual personalities.

        1. According to some people a human zygote is a person, and, as I understand it, zygotes are intellectually on par with syphilis. I agree with you and all, personhood should totally be dependent on an organism’s ability to demonstrate some predetermined level of human-like intelligence. Unfortunately, that means you have to draw the line above what some human lives will ever reach. It almost makes you think the whole concept of a “person” has some big intrinsic flaws that make it worthless for anti-speciesist ethics.

          1. Unfortunately, that means you have to draw the line above what some human lives will ever reach.

            Given there’s less difference between the average human and a chimp than between the average human and immortals like DaVinci or Einstein, that’s fine by me.

          2.  I think it’s easier if we define person as “a human being.” As soon as we go to “human-like” intelligence, the question becomes why just “human-like”? Either way we are discriminating against other species. I just think we should do it clearly and honestly.
            As for the end of chimp testing, yay! We’ve stopped abusing a charismatic species. Now, what about the rest of them?

        2.  A toddler won’t bite your face off and rip fingers off of your hands. Toddlers grow up to be much smarter than chimps. They are wild animals. You want to protect them – fine. But don’t anthropomorphize them into lovable near-humans.

          1. I think if you read my other comments in this thread, you ‘ll probably realise I’m in little danger of sacrificing reason to emotive mush.

  2. @ Clevername – I can’t give credit for the perfect response to your argument: “You cannot do evil that good may result.” Little effort has been made to find alternatives to the use of other species in research because they are viewed as merely the equivalent of beakers and test tubes. Humans kill other animals every day for entertainment. Sport hunting is legal everywhere as far as I know and promoted as good for business and tourism. There are plenty of madmen who take pleasure in suffering and death. I’m sure research has more than a few.

    1. Sure, you get bad apples everywhere, and for a long time the prevailing attitude towards animal test subjects amongst researchers was conveniently and counterfactually barbaric…

      But ‘little effort to find alternatives’…? I’d have assumed that if a proposed experiment isn’t sufficiently justified, a bioethics committee (or whatever they’re called) would ensure the researcher has no choice but to find an alternative.

      As for the supposed oxymoron of doing evil that good may result, that kind of idealistic absolutism doesn’t stand up in the real world. Everything is a cost/benefit equation. If you can identify a more justifiable ethical framework than utilitarianism, I’d sure like to hear about it.

    2. Little effort has been made to find alternatives to the use of other species in research because they are viewed as merely the equivalent of beakers and test tubes.

      Citation, please?

      What you say may be absolutely true, but right now has the epistemological status of “something someone asserted on the Internet.” Research with primates is very expensive,  so in an expensive  endeavour (medical) or  money grubbing industry (human consumer products), I’m surprised that people wouldn’t be looking for alternatives.

      Not saying you’re wrong. I’m sincerely curious about this issue.

  3. Confining them in laboratories and performing experiments on them undermines their rights?  Really?

    And the heck is that link, I don’t even

    EDIT: The post this was in response to has vanished.

    1. You mean the spam that you were trying to reply to?  Please don’t reply to spam.

        1. In this case the reply function didn’t work, but if someone replies to spam, it anchors the spam comment into the thread.  Even though I remove the content, the username remains.  And the username is often a link to a malware site.

  4. Many don’t understand that the “scientifically unjustified” part is not about torturing animals, but rather it’s about obtaining statistical significance.  Ape research is incredibly expensive, and often, a minimum number of animals (to see statistical significance) are given during the ethics approval process.  This means that in order to see significance in research, a very large difference must be seen between control and test groups.  Apes, much like humans, respond to treatments with great variability, so the likelihood of seeing statistically significant results is close to zero due to the limited numbers of animals (not like testing in inbred mice for example).  However, its not that the data obtained isn’t useful, but it is rather subject to large amounts of criticism simply because it does not have that p<0.05 value.  Of course, if someone showed me data with a test group size of 3 and only 2 responded to the treatment, I too would be all over their data and highly critical of them.

    All in all, it's sad to see that no significant data can be obtained from ape research, but it is somewhat expected given the conditions available.  I am not advocating the random use of apes in research (or any animal for that matter), but I still think there is some very interesting and relevant data that can be obtained from animal research.  Ethics committees work every day to try and improve the system and also realize that the system will never be perfect.  However, at our current status in science and medicine, animal research will continue to play a critical role in advancing the field and ultimately improve human health.  We will eventually reach the point where the use of animals in research will no longer be needed.

    1.  The perfect solution for the amoral researcher: cheap, docile and PETA doesn’t care. But seriously, the ethics are tricky but sometimes there is no substitute for humans. All Phase I trials do is administer the drug to healthy volunteers to check safety and dose range. There are people in western countries who are more or less professional guinea pigs too.

      1. Fuck ethics , you want to test for human cures do it on humans. I don’t know why my perspective on this is so unique, it’s not up to some bloody monkey to sacrifice itself so we can live an extra 5 years.

        I’d rather die at 30 than live with that.

        (edit: the ‘fuck ethics’ was for dramatic effect, in all honesty I don’t think testing on third world humans is any worse than testing on apes, to suggest any differently must surely rely on some religious inspired ego trip that were somehow more significant than anything else).

        1. “I don’t think testing on third world humans is any worse than testing on apes, to suggest any differently must surely rely on some religious inspired ego trip that were somehow more significant than anything else”

          And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why no one takes organizations like PETA seriously; they tend to be full of misanthropic nutcases who exhibit a Mengelian disregard for human pain.

          1. I’m not from PETA, and have 0 association with them.

            I’m just able to recognise that apes also feel pain, and are not willing volunteers to extend our lives. I’d love to know how that makes me a nutcase, and you sane – please go on.

          2. Incidentally I’m not actually proposing that we go and round up some third-world folks and start testing on them. I was simply pointing out that it would be no more cruel, and 100% more appropriate given the context of the testing; having the position that testing on animals is A-OK but testing on people makes you a Nazi nutcase who cares not for human pain is just stupid. I’d rather be a little crazy than stupid.

      1. It’s how we allow them to retain their humanity in those 50 cm wide cages in which they spend their short lives.

  5. It’s ridiculous that we test on these noble wild creatures when there are plenty of appropriate candidates on offer around the area of Jersey Shore. You know it makes sense. 

Comments are closed.