What happens to chimps used in medical research?

Chimpanzees as Test Subjects

Ham, the astrochimp, after his space flight in 1961.
Ham, the astrochimp, after his space flight in 1961.
Tim Morse/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Scientists selected chimpanzees as test subjects for infectious diseases with the goal of finding cures or vaccines. For instance, the National Institutes of Health attributes ape testing to the discovery of the polio vaccine [source: Strandberg].

A decade later, when the space race between the United States and Russia blasted off, the Air Force (pre-NASA) obtained 65 chimps from the wild to research the effects of space on the body. These physical tests were similar to those that human astronauts go through, such as G-force simulation [source: Conlee]. One test chimp named Ham preceded Alan Shepard's historic flight into space. Although Ham made an adorable photo-op in his miniature space suit, it would be the spread of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that would increase the number of chimpanzees as test subjects in the United States.

Chimpanzees, an endangered species, are native to Africa. Unlike mice or dogs, researchers didn't have ready access to chimpanzees for research. Instead, agencies and private companies had to import chimpanzees from the wild like the Air Force did with its space program testing. However, once the United States and other countries agreed to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1975, wild chimpanzee imports were restricted.

For those chimpanzees already brought into the United States for research, what type of treatment were they receiving? Congress passed the Animal Welfare Act in 1966 that outlined the minimum care requirements for warm-blooded animals in captivity, including nonhuman primates. It didn't exactly demand five-star hotel amenities. However, temperatures were to stay between 45 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit (7 to 29 degrees Celsius); animals were to be given adequate food and water; and researchers were to isolate sick individuals from the group, although veterinarians managing the facilities could authorize exceptions [source: USDA]. This law applied to chimpanzees used for biomedical research as well as behavioral research programs, such as those investigating chimps' language capacity.

In 1986, the National Institutes of Health started the Chimpanzee Biomedical Research Programs to study HIV and AIDS. To acquire enough chimps to perform these studies without violating CITES, the federal government oversaw a captive breeding project with some chimps already in the United States. Hundreds of these primates received HIV injections in order to analyze how the virus develops into AIDS. As the only animal that can contract HIV, chimpanzees seemed like a logical choice for treatment experiments. However, this series of testing also revealed that these apes rarely develop AIDS like humans do.

Although chimp research had yielded positive results for hepatitis B treatments, the AIDS research program was largely fruitless. The federal government had hundreds of HIV-infected chimpanzees on their hands, each costing around $15 per day to house [source: Berreby]. The chimpanzee's lifespan, which lasts up to 60 years, further complicated that caregiver responsibility.

While this research was happening, public opposition to animal testing had been steadily rising. Jane Goodall's primate studies in Tanzania revolutionized the perception of chimpanzees. She famously publicized the ability of chimpanzees to craft and use tools, communicate and create cultural patterns, all which previously were considered traits exclusive to humans. Animal rights groups such as the Animal Liberation Front, American Humane Association, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and PETA galvanized the debate about the ethics of animal testing. Even the now defunct Coulston Foundation, which housed the largest number of chimpanzees in the United States until its 2002 closing, attracted intense criticism because of its repeated citations from the USDA for negligent care [source: Stolberg].

By the beginning of the new millennium, the scene was set to phase out the use of chimpanzees in medical research within the United States and abroad.