NEW IBERIA, La.
In a dome-shaped outdoor cage, a dozen chimpanzees are hooting. The hair on their shoulders is sticking straight up. "That's piloerection," a sign of emotional arousal, says Dr. Dana Hasselschwert, head of veterinary sciences at the New Iberia Research Center. She tells a visitor to keep his distance. The chimps tend to throw pebbles — or worse — when they get excited.
Chimps' similarity to humans makes them valuable for research — and inspires intense sympathy.
Biomedical research on chimps helped produce a vaccine for hepatitis B, and is aimed at one for hepatitis C, which infects 170 million people worldwide. But there has long been an outcry against the research, which dates back to the 1920s, as cruel and unnecessary. Now, a decision could come within a year to stop such research in the United States, one of only two countries that conduct invasive research on chimpanzees. The other is Gabon.
"This is a very different moment than ever before," said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States. "Now is the time to get these chimps out of invasive research and out of the labs."
The Humane Society and other groups pushed the National Institutes of Health to commission a report on the usefulness of chimps in research, due this year. The society also joined with the Jane Goodall Institute, the Wildlife Conservation Society and others to petition the federal Fish and Wildlife Service to declare captive chimps endangered, as wild chimps already are, giving them new protections. A decision is due by September.
In addition, the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act, now in Congress, would ban invasive research on all great apes.
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., a sponsor, says it would save taxpayers $30 million a year. Pacelle says that invasive research on chimpanzees is expensive, that there are alternatives and that lab chimps suffer pain and isolation.
But John VandeBerg, director of the Southwest National Primate Research Center in San Antonio, says that stopping research with chimps would threaten human lives.
"Any reduction in the rate of development of drugs for these diseases will mean hundreds of thousands of people, really millions of people, dying because it would be years of delay," he said.
If human lives can be saved, VandeBerg said, "it would be grossly unethical not to do research" on chimpanzees.
Research in chimps is but a tiny piece of the larger debate..
Kathleen Conlee, senior director for animal research issues at the Humane Society, says the discussion about chimps points the way to the future.
"This," she said, "is the kind of rigorous analysis we should be applying to all animal research."