Mates past their prime

September 25, 1998

Veteran research chimps must be saved from extermination, says James Mahoney.

For the second time in recent years, laboratory chimpanzees in the United States face a crisis. What will become of several hundred research veterans, out of a total population of around 1,800, that are now deemed of no further value to medical science?

Their plight is a direct consequence of their genetic similarity to man, which renders them ideal models for the study of several diseases afflicting mankind worldwide, and the quest to find vaccines against them.

Although subjects in behavioural research since the 1920s, and substitutes for human astronauts in the US Air Force's aerospace programme during the 1950s and early 1960s, it was not until the 1970s that chimps started to be used in substantial numbers in biomedical research.

This came with the development of vaccines against hepatitis B, and later in a still unrealised search for a vaccine against hepatitis C. By the early 1980s, these one-time-use-only studies led to a rapid accumulation of chimps. Some scientists lobbied for retirement facilities, but many began to seriously consider euthanasia as the only practical way to alleviate the crisis.

The Aids epidemic in the mid-1980s "saved" the very chimps that, it was claimed, were "used up". Once again they were marshalled to act as surrogates for human beings, this time in the development of HIV vaccines. Yet, by the mid-1990s, frustrated by the lack of a breakthrough and the burgeoning financial cost of maintaining the chimps, scientists began to turn to human volunteers for the initial testing of Aids vaccines.

Increased breeding of chimps from the mid-1980s onwards, to satisfy anticipated needs for future research, exacerbated the crisis. This time around many scientists have had a change in attitude, brought on by pressure from the animal rights movements and an increased public awareness of the moral issues involved. A 1997 National Research Council report concluded that chimps should be afforded special consideration, on ethical grounds, over other animals, and that euthanasia is not an acceptable means of population control.

Yet where does this ray of sunshine leave us? Nearly 90 chimps were recently transferred into private retirement facilities following the closure of the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates in New York. Yet the US government is no closer to developing a national programme for chimp retirement than it was 15 years ago. Nor has any fiscal mechanism been developed to pay for the staggering cost, which will run as high as $10 to $20 a day, for a lifespan of up to 40 years.

The USAF recently retired just 30 of its 141 aerospace chimps, with no accompanying financial support, to Primarily Primates, a private sanctuary near San Antonio, Texas. The rest will remain, with no possibility of parole, at the Holloman air force base in New Mexico, to continue in research at a private research facility.

Was all the hyperbole about retiring chimps nothing more than talk?

James Mahoney is research professor, New York school of medicine.

He will appear in Horizon: Chimps on Death Row. Thursday October 1 BBC2 9.25pm.

Should money be provided to enable chimps used in research to live in retirement? Email us on

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