I usually count on NPR as a place I can go for truly fair and balanced news. But a disappointing piece recently published online in their Health News section and aired on All Things Considered proves that that’s not always the case. The article is about the U.S. government’s retired research chimps and when and how they should be moved to sanctuary. NEAVS campaigned tirelessly for years to end experimentation on chimpanzees and, finally, in 2015 Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, ended research on chimpanzees and deemed all former research chimps eligible for retirement at Chimp Haven, the Federal Sanctuary System. While today everyone agrees that former research chimps should go to sanctuary, there is some debate about whether the oldest and the sickest chimps could withstand the transport, which is the topic of NPR’s article. Unfortunately, the article fails to both provide relevant context and to truly present both sides of the argument.
Greenfieldboyce’s overwrought article makes it sound as though heart-wrenching, life or death decisions must be made for multitudes of retired chimpanzees. “Each chimp is different,” she says, “and although the NIH is trying to do right by these animals, knowing the right thing to do isn’t always easy.” Give me a break! In this case, in fact, knowing the right thing to do is quite easy! And if Greenfieldboyce had talked to any relevant experts besides individuals at government research facilities or the sole government chimpanzee sanctuary, she would have learned that the benefits of going to sanctuary far outweigh the risks—or she would have at least reported that side of the debate more thoroughly. In comments to the NIH and in cooperation with the working group tasked with overseeing the chimps’ retirement, many experts made it clear that ill laboratory chimpanzees often thrive once they arrive in sanctuary and receive specialized, individualized care. And, while, sure, the ride to sanctuary may be stressful, there are hundreds of examples of successful chimpanzee transports. Further, the overall reduction in stress and enhancement of health that can come with physical separation from the environment where they suffered repeated traumas simply cannot be accomplished by remaining in the same research facility, even if they have a couple of trees and some “enrichment” toys.
One of Greenfieldboyce’s interviewees, Dr. Robert Lanford, Director of the Southwest National Primate Research Center, provides some of the most absurd statements in this report. He describes the people who work with the chimpanzees as like family to the chimps and the facility as like the chimpanzees’ home. “The bond is a very long one and it’s very deep,” he says. I bet it is indeed a long and deep bond—but not in the way Dr. Lanford means. The chimps’ caregivers, while surely kind people, are also the individuals who have been shuttling the chimps to and from research experiments for years and, for some mother chimpanzees giving birth in captivity, these are also the people who have taken away their babies.
Dr. Lanford goes on to give an almost laughable example of why some chimpanzees should not be moved to sanctuary: “We have an animal that’s blind that is taken care of by its two cagemates. How do you recreate that at Chimp Haven?” Here’s an idea: move all three of the chimpanzees to Chimp Haven. Let’s give our closest relatives a little more credit. I’m guessing that the blind individual’s fellow chimpanzee caregivers would not abandon him or her. And, to boot, they would all get to enjoy living in sanctuary rather than a cage. And just let Dr. Lanford’s word choices sink in for a minute: “an animal,” “its,” “cagemates.” Clearly there is a different culture in this research facility than there would be in a sanctuary. At Chimp Haven, I can’t imagine anyone discussing this blind chimpanzee saying “an animal” or “it”. The blind individual would be just that—an individual, with a name. And to the reporter, again, why are we hearing so much from Dr. Lanford and others who work at research facilities or the NIH, and much less from those who might have a different perspective?
Lastly, take a closer look at the graph that NPR provides in this article.
Notice any missing information that might have been useful in providing a broader context? True, the number of chimpanzees in sanctuaries is increasing. But the overall number of chimpanzees is also decreasing. This means that lots of chimps are dying before they have a chance to experience life outside of a lab, after decades of traumatizing and unnecessary research. And also, what percent of the roughly 500 NIH owned or supported chimps that are still alive have made it to Chimp Haven? You’d have to go to the trouble of doing the math yourself. It’s less than half—46% to be exact.
The article touts the fact that there are more chimpanzees in accredited sanctuaries than in research facilities as “tipping the scales.” But is this really any kind of milestone to be celebrated? In 2013 the NIH made the decision to virtually end biomedical research on chimpanzees and retain only a population of 50 for possible future research, and in 2015 the NIH deemed all of its chimpanzees eligible for retirement. Yet here we are, more than half way through 2018 and still less than half of our federal chimps have made it to sanctuary. And consider this: we know from the graph that less than half of federal chimps are in sanctuary, so that “tipping of the scales” is due in part to private owners of chimpanzees moving more quickly than the government. It is shameful that so many federal chimps are still languishing in research facilities and deeply disappointing that NPR would publish a piece on this issue with only perspectives from federal labs, the sole federal chimpanzee sanctuary, and the NIH!
Tell NPR that this one-sided coverage is unacceptable. News stories about chimpanzees used in research should include experts not tied to government funded research or its sanctuaries. Tweet @NPR your reply, or leave a comment on Facebook and tell them what you think. Our dollars demand better reporting AND more efficient action by the NIH!