Animal rights groups face off with scientists over fate of chimps
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Ever since the first of their number arrived in New Mexico half a century ago as test subjects in the fledgling U.S. space program, nearly 200 government-owned chimpanzees were routinely injected with viruses and used to test everything from experimental vaccines to insecticides.
They have enjoyed a decade-long respite from research at an indoor-outdoor habitat on Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo, but now the government wants to move the chimpanzees to a Texas laboratory, where they might face renewed testing.
The plan has animal welfare groups and elected officials squaring off against federal scientists at a time when Congress is considering legislation that could shut down federal chimpanzee testing altogether.
Chimpanzees are our closest living relatives, sharing between 94% and 98% of our DNA, which is why some scientists see them as ideal research subjects. The similarity extends to their cognitive abilities. Chimps are intelligent and self-aware, even able to plan future actions.
"These animals have been put through the wringer and they deserve to be retired," says Kathleen Conlee, a program manager with the Humane Society of the United States, who has worked in a primate breeding facility and a great ape sanctuary. "The Humane Society doesn't think a laboratory environment can ever meet the psychological needs of a chimpanzee."
Moving the chimpanzees to the Southwest National Primate Research Center in San Antonio is expected to save $2 million a year in upkeep, while making more of a dwindling number of research animals available for crucial medical testing, said Harold Watson, a program director in the National Center for Research Resources at the National Institutes of Health.
John L. VandeBerg, director of the San Antonio primate center, says the chimpanzees are needed to test potential vaccines for diseases, such as hepatitis C and hepatitis B, because they are the only species other than humans that can become infected with those viruses.
"We only use chimpanzees when it's not possible to do critical experiments with any other species," VandeBerg said. The primates are well cared for, he said, and only about 100 are used in research at any time.
"They are not people, they are animals," he said. "I believe it's our ethical responsibility to do the research to alleviate the pain, suffering and deaths of millions of human beings."
VandeBerg concedes past abuses in chimpanzee experiments, but he says research now "involves procedures that are no different than those that are used every day in human clinical medicine. It generally involves drawing blood samples from a vein, just as we do with people; we've all had that done."
There are fewer than 1,000 research chimpanzees in the U.S., about half of them under NIH management. Their numbers are slowly declining because of a federal moratorium on breeding and deaths due to old age. The oldest, a female named Flo, turns 53 on Sept. 29.
Although the U.S. is virtually the last country in the world to permit invasive testing of chimpanzees, VandeBerg and others have argued for the resumption of a breeding program to permit further biomedical research.
Meanwhile, the Great Ape Protection Act, which would phase out invasive research on federally owned chimps and retire them to sanctuaries, has been introduced in Congress with bipartisan support.
Announcement of the plan to relocate the chimpanzees when the current third-party management contract at the Holloman facility expires in May 2011 prompted New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Tom Udall, the state's junior U.S. senator, to urge the NIH to reconsider. Richardson paid a visit to NIH headquarters in Bethesda, Md., in August to press the point but made little headway.
The Holloman chimpanzee colony traces its origins to the 1950s, when NASA acquired chimps for research during the early days of Project Mercury. By the 1970s they had become part of a breeding program, and the Holloman facility was leased to the late Dr. Frederick Coulston, a controversial toxicology researcher who used them to test insecticides and cosmetics.
Later, the chimps were managed by New Mexico State University, but during the early 1990s ownership was transferred to Coulston, who by then had started the nonprofit Coulston Foundation and built a nearby private facility in which the chimpanzees were housed in cramped steel-and-concrete cages with little room for exercise.
There were persistent accusations of severe abuse and neglect on Coulston's watch, with nearly 50 chimpanzees and monkeys dying from disease, poor veterinary care and experimentation amid documented violations of the Animal Welfare Act.
By the time the Coulston lab went bankrupt in 2002, nearly 300 chimpanzees had been transferred to Save the Chimps, a nonprofit organization that operates a sanctuary in Florida. The remaining 186 chimpanzees have been housed as a reserve population at the Holloman facility, which is now managed by Charles River Laboratories under a 10-year contract that expires next year. About 60 others that were at Holloman have been transferred to other facilities over the past decade.
The plan to transfer the Holloman chimpanzees to Texas has riled national animal welfare organizations, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the New England Anti-Vivisection Society and Animal Protection of New Mexico. An alert from the Humane Society in late July resulted in 25,000 protest letters addressed to Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, which oversees NIH, the society's Conlee said.
"They're certainly not going to move these chimpanzees without hearing about it from the public," Conlee said. "We're not against human disease research. We want them to use the money in a better fashion than they do."
Some experts question the scientific premise behind continued use of chimpanzees as an animal model for HIV and hepatitis research. Although it is true that chimpanzees can be infected with viruses like HIV and hepatitis C, they do not develop symptoms.
"They're an abject failure," said Dr. John Pippin, a retired cardiologist who works for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. "They have contributed nothing to the development of a vaccine for either disease."
He chalks up the continued reliance on animal models to scientific inertia. "It's an enormous industry," he said. Animal research accounts for between $12 billion and $13 billion annually in federal grant money, and 42% of NIH protocols are for animal research, he said.
Pippin contends it is more appropriate to experiment on cell cultures grown from human tissue for vaccine development. In the quest to develop an HIV vaccine, some of the most promising research is in studying the immune response of so-called elite controllers — the small number of HIV-infected people who have never gone on to develop full-blown AIDS, he said.
Watson of the National Center for Research Resources acknowledges the strides that have been made in developing new ways to develop and test vaccines, but he insists that the chimpanzees are still needed because their infection process closely mimics that in humans.
"The alternatives are something that we're very sensitive to, and our scientists are constantly looking for and finding alternatives for certain things," Watson said. "But as it stands right now, there's not really an alternative to chimpanzees for evaluating the vaccine."
-- Michael Haederle
Photo: Two chimpanzees wander the grounds of the Save the Chimps sanctuary in Florida. Some fellow colony members, subjects of testing that dates to early NASA experiments, could end up back in the lab. Credit: Eric Hasert, Stuart News / February 20, 2006