The Costs of Chimpanzee Research

Andrew Fenton shares a cautionary tale about the Liberian chimpanzees who were abandoned after being used for vaccine research.

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You might have read about the end of publicly-funded invasive research on chimpanzees in the United States and thought that the fight to protect these laboratory great apes was over. The story of what has happened to a little over 60 chimpanzees living on six islands in a river estuary in southern Liberia serves as a reminder that it isn’t over yet.

These chimpanzees are not there by choice nor can the islands they live on support their nutritional needs. They are a legacy of Vilab II, a facility in southern Liberia that was run by the non-profit New York Blood Center, where chimpanzees were used in vaccine research. The original chimpanzees were procured from the illegal ‘pet’ trade or taken by force from free-living communities before being bred for research. Vilab II stopped experimenting on chimpanzees in 2005. The surviving chimpanzees were moved to the six islands. After supporting their care for about ten years, the New York Blood Center abandoned the chimpanzees.

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The official reasons for ceasing support include: as a non-profit organization, their funds are “best used” to fund research that might benefit humanity (not care for a population of ex-biomedical chimpanzees); they did their bit for these chimpanzees and it’s unreasonable to think that they’re on the hook for their care in perpetuity; they’ve tried to find alternate means of support but talks with interested parties, including the Liberian government, have failed; and they actually don’t own these chimpanzees—they’re property of the Liberian nation—and the property owners are properly responsible for their care.

Some of you may have heard fragments of this story. It received a lot of press and generated a fair amount of outrage. Though the tale is an ugly one, there are clear moral heroes. At the top of this list are Liberian caregivers, like Joseph Thomas, who worked to keep the chimpanzees alive in the weeks and months after they were abandoned by the New York Blood Center. These caregivers also brought the chimpanzees’ plight to the attention of foreign aid workers who arrived to help fight the recent Ebola outbreak that ravaged Liberia. Were it not for the efforts of these caregivers, there is little doubt that the Liberian ex-biomedical chimpanzees would have died.

The cost-benefit analysis used by the New York Blood Center to justify their decision to abandon the Liberian ex-biomedical chimpanzees is not simply an attempt to avoid moral responsibility. As was recently foregrounded in a NIH workshop on nonhuman primate research, it’s the dominant way to justify harmful research on our fellow primates.

But thinking in terms of costs and benefits misses important moral features of this case. A hint can be found in the policy against euthanizing chimpanzees used in research, like the policy in the United States that contributed to the current ‘surplus’ of research chimpanzees and logistical difficulties in rehoming those used in NIH-funded research after the recent NIH decision to retire them all. It’s costly to keep these animals alive and the decision to do so isn’t merely based on benefits to the chimpanzees. Rather, it is widely recognized that their cognitive and social complexity calls for more respectful treatment than killing them once they are no longer scientifically useful. This constraint on maximizing benefit and minimizing cost is reflected in the New York Blood Center ‘retiring’ of their laboratory chimpanzees rather than killing them. It reflects the moral insight that sometimes doing what’s morally right requires acting in ways that do not benefit the majority (even if that majority are humans and the minority in question are chimpanzees)

There’s yet another feature of the case missed by a cost-benefit approach. The Liberian caregivers mentioned earlier did not abandon the ‘retired’ chimpanzees when the New York Blood Center withdrew their support (even though the caregivers lost their financial support). Rather, the Liberian caregivers acted with great compassion and decency—clear expressions of moral character (lacking in the actions of decision-makers at the New York Blood Center). Importantly, no one moral approach is up to the job here and to think so risks acting very badly, as the New York Blood Center illustrates.

It is widely recognized that using other animals in research is a privilege not a right. Only conscientious researchers and institutions should enjoy this privilege. Abandoning research chimpanzees on islands that cannot support them after a laboratory existence that prevents the development of typical chimpanzee life skills is hardly a conscientious act.

On this reasoning, the New York Blood Center should be given a choice: renew their financial support for the Liberian ex-biomedical chimpanzees or lose their privilege to use any more animals in research.

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Andrew Fenton is an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Philosophy at Dalhousie University and California State University – Fresno.