Tuesday, August 06, 2013

At last: research chimps get their golden parachutes

One of the saddest things I ever saw was a chimp imprisoned – there is no other word for it – by himself, in a cage, at the zoo in York Beach, Maine. The poor creature just looked so incredibly depressed, and how could he not be?

Not only was he the only chimp at the zoo – a nasty bit of solitary confinement for an incredibly social animal – but, let’s face it, York Beach, Maine is not exactly the natural habitat for a chimp.

This was many years ago, when the York Beach zoo and amusement park pretty much defined the word “tawdry.”

Other than the poor chimp, what I remember best about the York Beach whatever-it-was-called was the hideous road side come-on advertising its swell attractions. Off to the side of Route 1 as you neared the turn-off for York Beach were two poles about twenty feet high, topped by small, dog-house sized enclosures. The poles were attached by a swaying slat “bridge”, over which a billy goat meandered back and forth.

I remember driving by one time on a ground-foggy day and seeing this billy goat suspended in mid-air.

The park has apparently pulled its socks up. It looks far nicer than it was when I was there a million years go, and gets pretty good reviews on Trip Adviser

I am also happy to report that they no longer seem to have a chimp on their animal list.

At other zoos, of course, the chimps get far better treatment than they did back in the day at York Beach.

The San Diego Zoo has bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees) who were treated pretty well, and able to live in families, hanging around doing what bonobos and other apes do, largely grooming, eating, leaping around, and screwing. And, of course, the San Diego weather was a tad more ape-friendly than the climate of York Beach, Maine.

I have always liked chimpanzees, second only to dogs on my roster of excellent animals, and, once I was introduced to the bonobos – and I do mean introduced – back in the 1980’s, they became my go-to ape. (Although they are called pygmy chimpanzees, bonobos are actually a separate species (pan paniscus) from common chimps (pan troglodytes).)

DNA-wise, they’re both pretty close to us humanoids, the bonobos, I believe, a tad closer.  Of course, that 2% difference is a big one…

Because apes, especially chimps, are so genetically similar to us they have, over the years, been used for medical testing. (We’re talking chimp-chimps here, not bonobos who, as far as I know, haven’t been involved in medical experiments.)

As you can imagine, the use of great apes as guinea pigs has been quite controversial. They’re not exactly lab rats. They’re intelligent, sentient beings capable of developing relationships, communicating effectively, etc. 

So it was quite a triumph when the National Institutes of Health decided to:

…end the use of chimps in nearly all of its government medical research. The announcement means that 310 chimpanzees that have been locked away in laboratory cages for nearly all of their lives will now be retired, released to live out the remainder of their days in sanctuary habitats that mimic the wild. (Source: Inhabitat.com)

And, by the way, we do not have to fear that this means no cure for the whooping cough, gingivitis, or irritable bowel syndrome:

In 2011, the Institute of Medicine declared that there was almost zero justification for using chimps, our closets biological relatives, for invasive medical research.

In announcing the news, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins underscored this:

Americans have benefitted greatly from the chimpanzees’ service to biomedical research, but new scientific methods and technologies have rendered their use in research largely unnecessary…Their likeness to humans has made them uniquely valuable for certain types of research, but also demands greater justification for their use. After extensive consideration with the expert guidance of many, I am confident that greatly reducing their use in biomedical research is scientifically sound and the right thing to do.”

While a subset of the chimps will still be part of a handful of NIH studies, hundreds will become part of the Federal Sanctuary System, which sounds a bit like witness protection - which may not be that far off the mark, come to think of it.

Some of the chimps have been sent to Louisiana’s Chimp Haven , where, for the first time in their lives for many of them, they’ll experience the great outdoors. Plus have a few not-so-found-in-the-wild activities, as well. This I surmise by some of the items on the Chimp haven wish list:

Sensory Enrichment Items
  • Large Paint Brushes (plastic preferred)
  • Canvas to paint on
  • New toothbrushes, combs, brushes
  • Water Misters
  • New Halloween masks
  • Used percussion instruments (maracas, tambourines, etc.)
  • Lava lamps
  • Plastic Mirrors, 48 x 96 or 12 x 48
Nesting and Paper Enrichment Items
  • Fleece Blankets
  • Towels – for the veterinary department
  • Burlap Sacks
  • Fleece
  • Surgical Drapes
  • Butcher Paper
  • Wrapping Paper
  • Wood wool

Although I’m not quite sure what wood wool is, this sure sounds like more fun than being in a research cage and getting infected with the AIDS virus.

See for yourself here, on HLNTV, how the recently retired research chimps are getting on.

They may not be born free, but they’ve now had freedom thrust upon them. Not to mention that, from the sound of what’s on the wish list, they’ll be having a rhythm band, painting up a storm, wrapping presents, and having sack races. Other than the sack race, sounds like it has a lot in common with the recreational opportunities at a human retirement community, as I’ll no doubt be finding out for myself one of these fine days. Dibs on the V mask! (Or maybe the Richard Nixon.)

Good luck to all the newly freed chimpanzees. Centanni to all of you.

Sometimes retirement actually is the start of a new life, rather than just a wind-down of your old one.

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