Lab Directors Need to Accept Reality, Too

August 01, 2013 NEAVS President Theodora Capaldo, EdD Press Release

The following is in response to John VandeBerg's Aug. 1 New York Times op-ed, "Apes Need Vaccines, Too."

VandeBerg (“Apes Need Vaccines, Too,” Aug. 2, 2013) acknowledges chimpanzee research is an “enterprise” – which according to Merriam-Webster is an “undertaking that is especially difficult, complicated, or risky” as well as “a unit of economic activity.” “As the chief scientific officer at a research institute that has 90 chimps supported by the N.I.H.,” he is obligated to defend their use. His institution has far more to lose as science “dismantle[s]” biomedical research with chimpanzees than does the public or chimpanzees. In my view, as opposed to his, the costs of such research far outweigh the benefits.

VandeBerg’s op-ed, I believe, is misleading. First, while there are serious ethical concerns about using chimpanzees in research to benefit chimpanzee populations, the question of their usefulness and need to benefit humans has been put to rest. Lab directors would do well to accept this reality. When one of the most esteemed scientific bodies in our country, the Institute of Medicine (IOM), concludes they are not necessary in biomedical research for human benefit, and “the nation’s medical research agency [the National Institutes of Health (NIH)]” charged with “pav[ing] the way for important discoveries that improve health and save lives” determines that continued breeding, funding, and use of NIH-owned chimpanzees is not necessary to accomplish its mission, then the weak arguments of lab directors must not become the Lazarus of this scientific debate. There is no need to raise this issue from the dead. Chimpanzees have been at best of limited value historically, are no longer needed given advances in science, are enormously costly, and have been subjected to decades of immeasurable physical and psychological suffering.

VandeBerg’s current shift in argument to why we need chimpanzees to help free-living chimpanzees is hedging the bet with slight of hand. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is on the brink of up-listing captive chimpanzees to endangered. Some see this as opportunity to argue for their use to help other chimpanzees. Yet, nothing from the IOM, NIH, or FWS positions prevents breakthroughs to help free-living chimpanzees, even while such use of captive individuals is surrounded by complicated ethical questions.

While I welcome factual debate, I am sorry to say this piece felt more like propaganda for continued funding for an industry with economic interests. I wish those who make such commentary would acknowledge what the crux of this matter is for them. And, like thousands of people do daily in their appeals to the public and government, say clearly they are afraid that “I might lose my job.” Such honesty could then hold them accountable to the possibility that what’s wrong is not ending chimpanzee research, but that they have not moved their labs forward into 21st-century, human health research. Maybe that would motivate them to join the rest of the scientific world developing and using methods that reflect advanced science rather than dragging dead horses, chimpanzees, and other animals around.

Many progressive scientists challenge not just chimpanzee use, but all animal use. They see its limitations, dangers, and what a “risky” business it is, has been, and always will be. But unlike those with economic interest in status quo ineffective models, they’re looking forward – not scrambling for new versions of the same old same old arguments, riddled with scientific holes. It’s time to move on so we can have better science for humans and animals. What is happening around chimpanzee use indicates “better days are coming” for the chimps who have languished for decades, and for you, me, and better science.