Chimpanzees Deserve Our Compassion
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Chimpanzees Deserve Our Compassion

by Kelly Overton
July 11, 2008

A friend died last week. Carrie was only 45 years old; she died of complications from a life of exploitation. Almost from the start her life wasn't what it should have been and despite heroic efforts by those who loved her, Carrie, simply couldn't be put back together again. Carrie was a chimpanzee who spent all but a few years of her life living inside biomedical research laboratories within the United States, the only country in the world still performing large-scale invasive research on great apes.

No single person is to blame for the pain and sadness that engulfed Carrie's life; we all are. Humans have been fascinated with chimpanzees for centuries, from Darwin to Stokes, from shooting them into space to shooting them full of human disease, from isolating them in cages to forcing them to entertain us. Chimpanzees are fascinating and their intelligence, beauty and complex social structures encourage observation. It is natural to want to observe them, but wrong when our fascination and curiosity turns into exploitation and abuse.

This past week Spain introduced legislation that would grant the right to life and freedom, as well as protection from torture, to chimpanzees and other great apes. This brave stance is long overdue (both at home and abroad) for our nearest genetic relatives. Our continued use of great apes and other animals in biomedical research is not only cruel and unethical, but a waste of hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Biomedical testing on nonhuman animals like Carrie has never worked, animal tests proved penicillin deadly, strychnine safe and aspirin dangerous. The vast majority of medications approved for human use after animal testing later proved ineffective or harmful to humans in clinical trials. Americans have spent billions of dollars to cure cancer in mice, but so far have yet to replicate human cancer in any animal, let alone close in on a cure. All but a very few diseases are species unique, and the only way to discover cures and create vaccines is through the use of the same species' cells, tissues and organs.

The medical progress of the past century is the result of technology, public health improvements, epidemiology, human clinical research, mathematical modeling and the mapping of the human genome, not experiments on great apes or other animals. The continued use of nonhuman animals like Carrie as research subjects is jeopardizing the United States' status as the world's leader in health care innovation, a position that guarantees our country's economic strength and protects us from biological terrorism.

Sadly, biomedical testing is not the only misuse of chimpanzees in the United States. Americans still go ape for movies, circuses and television shows and commercials that feature chimpanzees, the child stars with the saddest futures. The cute chimps used in entertainment are children (taken from their mothers) who soon outgrow their usefulness and profitability. Captive chimpanzees can live up to 50 years, but their careers as entertainers end early. Usually by age 8 chimps become too strong to be safely managed. When they can no longer be coerced into performing the chimps are betrayed again, this time being sent to a research lab or cramped roadside attraction. If lucky, a chimpanzee eventually ends up living in one of the few sanctuaries for great apes, where lifetime care can run up to a half million dollars. It's only fair that biomedical and entertainment corporations that have profited from the exploitation of great apes make reparations and begin paying residuals to the sanctuaries left to care for these gorillas, orangutans, bonobos and chimpanzees.

If there is a chimp heaven Carrie is there, she is wild and free and living in a forest where all the world's creatures live in harmony. There is no biomedical research in chimp heaven, no need for bush meat there, chimp heaven isn't shrinking due to habitat loss and the chimps there don't have to entertain humans. Carrie, for the first time in over four decades, is home.

Kelly Overton is managing director of Save the Chimps.

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