New Mexico's Governor Richardson met with National Institutes of Health (NIH) officials recently in a last-ditch effort to stop NIH from moving 202 "retired" chimpanzees out of Holloman Air Force base and back into invasive experiments. NIH is moving swiftly to transfer the chimpanzees into facilities so substandard that caging conditions within them violate not only everything that we have come to know about what chimpanzees require but also federal law itself. Some of the animals are 60 years old; some are left over from the space program. Gov. Richardson's visit came on the heels of petitions and pleas by everyone from physicians, veterinarians and primatologists to actors such as Gene Hackman, all of which have been ignored.
It was only a week earlier that Time magazine's cover story asked the question, "What's on animals' minds?" Fifteen years before, as Dr. Jane Goodall mulled over the complex relationships within chimpanzee families, Time had asked, "Do animals think?" Now the question is "What do animals think?" In the case of chimpanzees, who have been taught to use sign boards and even American Sign Language to communicate with their human captors, they think a lot.
The more pressing question is now "What is NIH thinking?" And the answer isn't befitting our nation's level of awareness about animals and its commitment to their protection.
In 2001, the U.S. Congress recognized that chimpanzees should be retired from experimentation. "Retirement" has not meant a beachfront condo or a return to the Gombe. Charities have managed to wrest away some chimpanzees, rehabilitate them from a life that, in some cases, consisted of 34 years on a concrete bench in a tiny cell or two decades in a steel cage barely any bigger than the animal's body, and put them in group care.
In many cases, "retirement" has meant a continuation of solitary confinement but no more invasive and painful procedures. Imbued with active, intelligent minds, naturally inclined to complex social relationships, as capable of falling in love and carefully raising their children as we are, they sit and wait, alone, with not even a blanket or an orange to keep them company. It is cruel and unusual punishment for a thinking being, but it is still far better than also being cut apart and sewn back up every so often, the fate that now awaits them again if NIH does not stop this wretched plan.
NIH has already moved 15 of the "retired" chimpanzees to the Southwest Foundation, a Texas facility that has failed to meet federal minimum standards for the care of animals. Federal minimum standards for chimpanzees, by the way, require no more than enough room in which to stand, sit and turn around-for life. Charles River Laboratories, which operates the Alamogordo Primate Facility, another dungeon-like laboratory complex as notoriously inhumane as Devil's Island, plans to start experimenting on these and the other chimpanzees soon.
Carl Sagan once wondered if those who experiment on nonhuman primates would fare as well as their subjects if the tables were turned. At first, he thought they would. But in one experiment, in which monkeys were only permitted to eat if they pulled a lever that administered an electric shock to another monkey, the monkeys chose to abstain from food for up to 14 days, even if they didn't know the monkey being shocked. Sagan had to wonder how many human beings in the same situation would be so selfless.
If this administration is to be seen as remotely humane, President Obama must act quickly to stop the NIH officials who have chosen to ignore all that we have learned over the years about how indistinguishable chimpanzees are from us in any important way, such as the ability to feel pain and fear, love and joy, and the desire to live with others of one's own kind. The chimpanzees being moved out of Holloman are not a testament to our society's quest for understanding and compassion but rather a testament to its ability to betray, for a few bucks, those who depend on us for mercy.