Primal Numbers – Like Rats out of a Maze

Whether It’s rats in a maze or chimps in a cage, science has a long history of using animals for research. The debate on biomedical research is often heated, but what we don’t usually consider is what happens to the animals after they’re no longer needed. One recent story shows that It’s an urgent question?and that some scientists need to do a lot better.

You might think that animal testing is a thing of the past. That those images of rabbits and dogs being tortured in the name of science belong to a different era. In some cases That’s true. Research methods have been updated, consumers are more aware, and plenty of products and facilities now label themselves as cruelty-free as a way to boost their brands.

Research ethics are a lot more stringent too, with places like the American Psychological Association and the Canadian Council on Animal Care in Science setting out clear guidelines on the treatment of non-human animals in research. (The phrase “non-human animals” itself is a nod to how closely we’re related to certain species.)

But whether you agree with it or not (and That’s a debate for another day), animals are still used in scientific research every day?and the ethics that scientists adhere to in the lab don’t always apply once the animals aren’t needed.

Take the case of the New York Blood Center (NYBC) and a colony of chimpanzees in Liberia. As The New York Times reports, the NYBC contracted with the Liberian Institute for Biomedical Research back in the 1970s to study chimpanzees. The arrangement made sense. The US government was in the process of banning the import of wild chimps, so the animals were set up to “live uncaged on six mangrove islands,” where the NYBC used them to research the hepatitis virus.

There’s no dispute that the research was valuable. It helped to ensure the safety of blood donations for millions of people. And there’s no suggestion that the chimps were harmed. The NYBC and the Liberian Institute were doing vital work while caring for and feeding animals that lived, as near as possible, in wild conditions.

But then, in 2005, the research ended. The chimps were no longer needed. There are 66 in the colony, on islands where there is no fresh water supply and no natural food source. Essentially, they’re marooned and dependent on humans to supply them with food and water.

For 10 years, That’s just what NYBC did, at a cost of some $30,000 a month. But now that funding has stopped. The NYBC wants the Liberian government (which owns the chimps) to take over. The government wants the NYBC to continue caring for the animals that they used in research for nearly 30 years.

The only party That’s stepped up to the plate so far is the Humane Society of the United States, paying for food and repairing the water supply system. Caretakers at the Liberian Institute have volunteered their time.

It’s purely coincidence, but the question of these unwanted chimps comes at the same time that courts must decide whether to grant some primates a writ of habeus corpus?to determine whether humans have a legal right to detain them. In New York State, a case is being argued on whether two research chimps have the right to “bodily liberty.” In another case, the Nonhuman Rights Project reports that an orangutan in Argentina has indeed been awarded habeus corpus.

The point, though, is that a research animal’s fate isn’t always clear. Some die during experiments. Others are euthanized. A small percentage of them go on to sanctuaries. It’s a welcome option but one that involves vast amounts of time and resources, as this video from Save the Chimps shows.

Whether they’re pigs or primates, the debate on biomedical research must consider the question of what to do with animals once they’re no longer needed.

Laboratory animals have played a critical role in making human lives better. Hopefully, one day, we’ll eliminate the need for animal testing all together. In the meantime, research will continue to make medical breakthroughs, save lives, and generally improve our quality of life.

But if we abandon those who helped us get there, we haven’t come very far at all.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.