Randi Kreiss

Chimps face N.Y. court test of ‘personhood’


Randi is on a brief leave. This column was originally published June 11-17, 2015.

“When you meet chimps, you meet individual personalities. When a baby chimp looks at you, it’s just like a human baby. We have a responsibility to them.”

—Jane Goodall, animal right activist

Chimpanzee stories invite cheap shots, jokes and memories of J. Fredd Muggs (a regular on “The Today Show”), but the true story of these primates in modern times is both shameful and tragic. The continuing abuse of chimpanzees in research, and a New York state lawsuit arguing the “personhood” of chimps, demand our focused attention and action.

A few brief facts: Chimpanzees share 95 to 98 percent of our DNA. They are native to Africa and they are endangered, with only 180,000 to 300,000 remaining. Fifty years ago, there were probably a million chimpanzees roaming Africa. Deforestation, poaching and some people’s taste for bush meat have depleted the population.

Nearly 2,000 chimpanzees live in the U.S. Some 850 live in laboratories. About 250 chimps are in accredited zoos, 600 in sanctuaries, and 250 in private hands, such as carnivals, low-end zoos and the pet trade.

Chimpanzees are one of the four great apes, along with gorillas, bonobos and orangutans. But chimps are closer to humans in their DNA than they are to any of their ape brethren. They know how to use tools, have opposable thumbs and can learn sign language. They pass the “mirror” test, recognizing themselves in reflective glass, and they are self-aware; express grief, depression and joy; and have the ability to play jokes on one another.

Yet for decades, these animals have been used for research in the U.S., by the National Institutes of Health and by medical schools and pharmaceutical companies. This research rests on the presumption that as higher beings, we have the right to subject other living creatures to pain and suffering to improve our own health and longevity.

Anyone who watches or reads about the specific research protocols must surely question that presumption.

Chimps kiss, hug and tickle one another, and adopt orphan babies when their parents die. Highly intelligent, they are social and communicative. They are capable of depression, the irony being that because they are so human-like in their emotions, they are ideal subjects for scientists.

I don’t want to detail the horrific specifics of various experiments; they were too difficult to read and unnecessary to repeat here. Perhaps one example is sufficient. In an experiment known as “the pit of despair,” baby chimps were paced in a small, cold, closed bin with slippery sides and a rounded bottom. They were isolated and fed though a sliding tray. The study was for a new medication for depression. I don’t know how the drug did, but the chimpanzees slipped into profound depression, self-mutilation and silence. They never recovered.

The awful irony is that in 2011, the National Academy of Sciences concluded, “Most current biomedical research use of chimpanzees is not necessary.” In addition, a 2013 NIH report confirmed, “Research involving chimpanzees has rarely accelerated new discoveries or the advancement of human health.”

The report added, “The majority of NIH-owned chimpanzees should be designated for retirement and transferred to the federal sanctuary system.”

We, the land of the free, are the only developed country in the world that continues to use chimpanzees in invasive experiments. A number of countries, including Australia, the European Union, Japan and New Zealand, have banned the use of all great apes in experiments.

What got me thinking about the shameful legacy of abuse of chimpanzees was the news in April of a lawsuit filed by the Nonhuman Rights Project seeking “personhood” status for two chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, now being held at Stony Brook University. A State Supreme Court judge, Barbara Jaffe, has ordered that Stony Brook must respond to the suit.

If the apes are freed, they will go to Chimp Haven, a sanctuary for retired and rehabilitated chimpanzees in Fort Pierce, Fla. According to a spokesman, NhRP is not seeking personhood for apes so they can roam the streets. The group is seeking only one specific right: the right to one’s bodily freedom, the freedom not to be taken and kept involuntarily for any purpose.

When I brought this subject up for discussion at a dinner table this week, the reaction of my friends — all kind, well-informed people — was complete lack of concern for or interest in chimpanzees, abused or otherwise. They trotted out the old argument about it being OK to experiment on animals so people can live better lives. They said they just couldn’t care about what happens to chimpanzees. They asked where I would draw the line. OK to experiment on dogs? Rats? Fruit flies?

I do draw a line. No experimentation at all on any higher-functioning animal that is not only sentient, but self-aware and capable of emoting feelings and socialization. I can be OK with experimenting on mice and rats and fruit flies and other lower life forms.

We don’t have the moral right to experiment on chimpanzees. The systematic torture of chimps, once considered “research” and now discredited by the NIH as inhumane and ineffectual, must stop. Please join me in supporting Jane Goodall’s work to save and rehabilitate chimpanzees. Go to www.janegoodall.org, where you can learn, donate or volunteer.

Copyright 2023 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at randik3@aol.com.