Awaiting Release: Great Ape Protection Act Would End Use of Chimps in Laboratories

by Karen E. Lange

The last time Samantha Elaine Struthers saw her friend Lennie, he was hunched over, alone in a cage at an Alamogordo, N.M., research lab then known as the Coulston Foundation. The once warm, animated chimpanzee, whom Struthers had groomed and been groomed by many times, stared listlessly down through the bars, studying the bare concrete floor.

Because he had been infected with HIV, Struthers had to approach him wearing a white protective suit, gloves, goggles, a surgical cap, and a mask. Not until she spoke did he recognize her and show glimpses of the old Lennie—stomping his feet, banging on the cage, making buzzing noises. But, clearly desperate to escape his isolation, he also made uncharacteristic submissive gestures, grinning repeatedly and whimpering. Plaintively, he reached through the bars.

“It was really heartbreaking,” says Struthers, who on that day 14 years ago was director of behavioral sciences at the Coulston Foundation but now believes the animals’ social and psychological needs cannot be met in labs. “He’d be like my age, like around 50 now.… I never saw him on those lists that they said went to sanctuaries.”

Lennie never found his freedom; unbeknownst to Struthers, he died of a heart attack in 2002.

But in January, nearly 190 chimpanzees still at the Alamogordo facility got a reprieve with the help of former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson and others: The National Institutes of Health said the chimps will not be made available for invasive tests while an independent review of chimpanzee research is conducted.

Elsewhere in the U.S., about 800 other chimpanzees continue to languish in laboratories, even though they have proved poor models for research on human diseases and demand for them as test subjects has dwindled.

Struthers is among several hundred scientists and former lab workers who support efforts to end biomedical research on all chimpanzees, ban breeding to provide more chimps for labs, and retire the 500 federally owned animals to sanctuaries—where they would receive more humane care at lower cost to the government.

Seeking to codify these changes, The HSUS is working to get the federal Great Ape Protection Act reintroduced this year. In the previous session of Congress, the bill had broad bipartisan support. Many cosponsors were won over by a 2009 HSUS investigation that documented more than 300 alleged Animal Welfare Act violations at the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana.

The HSUS also recently released records showing that the center was violating an NIH ban on breeding federally owned chimps—and that 14 infant chimps have been mauled to death since 2000, says Kathleen Conlee, HSUS director of program management for animal research issues. The HSUS is asking the government to investigate and immediately end taxpayer-supported breeding there.

Conditions at New Iberia remind Rachel Weiss, president of the Laboratory Primate Advocacy Group, of her mid-1990s experiences taking care of chimpanzees at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta. Ask Weiss why people should support the bill, and she tells the story of a chimp named Arctica, a veteran of vaccine and HIV research who had grown old and mean within Yerkes’ windowless confines, pacing about in her cage.

“She had steel gray hair,” says Weiss. “… She would grab you and try to scratch you through your gloves. She would spit in your face.”

Six years ago Weiss learned that the surviving chimpanzees from Arctica’s group had been released to Chimp Haven sanctuary in Louisiana. Weiss went to visit them, and there was Arctica, transformed: “She got up on the fence and she put her belly up to the fence. And she screamed, and she cried.… She was a whole different person.… She was dark. And she didn’t look mean anymore. She was happy.”

The Great Ape Protection Act would release hundreds more chimpanzees to finally enjoy a decent life. Show your support for the Great Ape Protection Act.

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