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The stressful lives of chimpanzees

By Chris Adams
On April 27, 2011

  • Matt Uselton plays with Al Kapone at 2010 Music Fest on Budweiser stage last year. Matt Uselton

Donovan the chimp transformed from a friendly ape who "adapts well to peers" to one who beat his female cage-mate so aggressively they had to be separated.

Lira became a "chronic hair plucker," with large barren patches on her body.

Bobby bit and mutilated his own arm, leaving permanent scars. He was so depressed that he slept sitting up, facing the wall of his cage.

The debate about medical testing on chimpanzees often revolves around the physical impact on the chimps — week after week of liver biopsies or year after year of being infected with HIV or hepatitis.

But an examination by McClatchy Newspapers of the chimp-research world found that, in addition to a physical toll, the testing life can have a significant impact on a chimp's mental state.

For the roughly 180 chimpanzees that live at the Alamogordo Primate Facility, on an Air Force base in New Mexico, the world of research looms large: For the past 10 years, they've been kept out of research; now the National Institutes of Health is trying to move them to a research facility in Texas, where they'd be used in studies on hepatitis and possibly other ailments.

The science of chimp research is dicey. The United States is virtually alone in the world in pursuing it, and many scientists say the chimps' value as a medical model is declining. Chimps are among humans' closest genetic cousins, and given their range of emotions and their level of understanding, researchers themselves afford chimps special protections that other research animals don't get, even monkeys. According to the National Research Council, the public "expects a high level of respect for the animals," given the "special connection of chimpanzees to humans."

For the chimps, research can be lonely and debilitating; some end up with mental ailments including post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. Sometimes the symptoms will ease once the testing ends, but sometimes they stick with a chimp for life.

"Chimpanzees depend on close physical contact. They love their comforts, and like to stretch out on a nice soft bed of grass. They make their own choices all the time," famed chimp researcher Jane Goodall said. "None of these things can in any possible way be experienced by a laboratory chimp. I've been in quite a lot of medical research labs, and the truth is I wish I hadn't, because they haunt me."

The researchers who handle the chimps disagree. They say the chimps are treated well and humanely, oversight panels ensure that only necessary research is performed on them, and they're given space to move and play.

John VandeBerg, who oversees the primate facility at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, said the chimps were treated compassionately and that life in the lab was good.

If he were a chimp, McClatchy asked, where would VandeBerg himself rather live: Texas Biomedical or Chimp Haven, a forested sanctuary in Louisiana where some chimps go to retire?

VandeBerg thought for a minute before answering: "You know, that's an interesting question. I would rather be living here. ... Chimp Haven is a wonderful facility — a beautiful facility, has beautiful outdoor areas. ... So it's a lovely facility. But what we have here is far better veterinary capacity."

He said the lab had vets on staff, full medical facilities and the ability to generate rapid test results. "We have medical capacity way beyond what Chimp Haven has, and if I were a chimpanzee I'd rather be here, where I could get the medical attention that I might need sometime in my life, especially as I got old."

The chimps, he said, even have televisions. They like to watch animal movies.

The effort to understand the chimps' minds has grown in the past decade. One chimp who helped illustrate the impact of research was Billy; his story was chronicled in the medical journal Developmental Psychology in 2009.

Raised as an entertainer — working the birthday party circuit — Billy lived compatibly with humans and had a strong bond with his owners before he was given over to researchers at age 15.

At a chimp lab in New York, he was caged alone, except when paired with Sue Ellen for breeding; he attacked her instead. For 14 years, he was used for research into hepatitis, HIV, measles and polio. During that time, he turned hostile, uncooperative, aggressive and depressive; he wouldn't interact normally with other chimps. After one experimental procedure, he chewed his thumb off.

Even when he left the lab for retirement at a sanctuary, Billy remained fearful and agitated. He screamed if the door to his cage was left open, and he couldn't go to sleep until he himself had tested that the door was locked.

Billy had an impressive memory and he interacted well with humans, even mimicking them at times, by spooning cream and sugar into his coffee, for example.

One day, Billy became excited while he was watching television. He gestured wildly for the facility director to come look. On the TV screen: Goodall. Billy had met her years before. The director turned up the TV volume, and Billy sat to watch the program.

Many of the animals in New Mexico saw the same kinds of changes in their personalities that Billy did.

Their stories emerge from thousands of pages of medical records that an advocacy group, In Defense of Animals, unearthed after a lengthy legal fight with the NIH. The records were provided exclusively to McClatchy with no strings attached, for its own review.

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