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Researchers look for solutions to help lab-bred chimpanzees

Three female chimpanzees nod-off as they sit on rocks in a family group, with the sun on their backs in their open air enclosure at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, 26 April 2005.  (Rob Elliot/AFP via Getty Images)
Three female chimpanzees nod-off as they sit on rocks in a family group, with the sun on their backs in their open air enclosure at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, 26 April 2005. (Rob Elliot/AFP via Getty Images)

The government started breeding chimpanzees for invasive biomedical research in the 1980s — and now, the fate of more than 250 of these primates is uncertain.

In 1995, the government stopped breeding chimpanzees — with whom humans share 98% of our genes. Research continued for years after that, ending only recently in 2015.Many chimpanzees used for testing were forced to undergo biomedical research experiments for diseases like Hepatitis B and C and HIV.

“They were infected with various diseases and used in vaccine development and … to evaluate the toxicity of different drugs and chemicals,” says Rachel Fobar, a National Geographic investigative reporter. “For many of them, it was a pretty hard life.”

The result led many chimps to develop a number of medical conditions like heart and kidney issues, and early death. Fobar adds that many chimps also develop life-long psychological trauma. Some pluck their hair, rock back and forth, pace, and harm themselves.

Only chimpanzees that fall under specific government requirements receive lifetime funding, leaving many chimps living in struggling sanctuaries without care. Because chimpanzees live between 30 to 40 years of age — and in some cases, 70 years — Chimp Haven was created as a sanctuary for retired government-owned chimps.

Some chimps were lucky enough to go to the haven, but others were kept in labs after the government decided they were too frail to move. More chimps remained in private labs, went to other sanctuaries or were transported to less reputable facilities.

For sanctuaries caring for retired chimps, the cost isn’t cheap. One source told Fobar that chimp care is like caring for a human child. Of the five reputable chimp sanctuaries in the U.S., many are relying completely on donations.

“It costs about $22,000 per year to take care of a single chimpanzee,” Fobar says. “And on top of that, you have costs like maintenance and staff salaries and veterinary care.” Transferring animals to a sanctuary takes thousands upon thousands of dollars. So the cost of sanctuary life can add up very quickly.”

Animal rights activists are continuing to push for both the government and private labs to do something about the lifelong care of chimpanzees. Fobar says the country owes the chimpanzees the best life possible.

“We’re the reason they’re here in the first place. And they’ve done such a great service by being part of our research. They’ve helped us develop treatments for and better understand a number of infectious diseases,” Fobar says. ”They deserve to be outside with other chimpanzees, touching the grass, and seeing the sky and enjoying life.”


 Jorgelina Manna-Rea produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Jeannette Muhammad adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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