A Power Struggle on Capitol Hill Over Chimpanzees' Future

  By Adam M. Roberts

On May 18, 2000, Dr. Jane Goodall brought 40 years of primatological knowledge to Congress, strenuously advocating passage of legislation to enable retirement for chimpanzees formerly utilized in biomedical research, the "Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection Act" (H.R. 3514). In Dr. Goodall's words: "This legislation is the only humane hope for chimpanzees that will never be used in research again."

Pennsylvania Congressman Jim Greenwood's bill, pending before the House Commerce Committee, would appropriate up to $30 million to create a national chimpanzee sanctuary system. When researchers decide that any of the approximately 1,500 captive research chimpanzees in the U.S. are no longer needed, they can be released permanently to the sanctuary to live out the remainder of their natural lives in peace.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) opposes this well-deserved retirement. Dr. John Strandberg, testifying for NIH, said "NIH cannot support proposed legislation that would require it to establish sanctuaries for chimpanzees and would make the animals permanently unavailable for study and monitoring." The bill does no such thing. It establishes an independent non-profit sanctuary system; it does not require NIH to start one. It does not make the animals unavailable for study and monitoring. Actually, H.R. 3514 specifically allows for "noninvasive behavioral studies" and "medical studies conducted during the course of normal veterinary care that is provided for the benefit of the chimpanzees." It also requires necropsy reports to be made available to researchers.

NIH is as delusional about the legislation's language as it is about the conditions at The Coulston Foundation (TCF), the world's largest and most disgraceful captive chimpanzee colony. Quoted in The Washington Post, Strandberg blames "Coulston's troubles on bad public relations." He told the reporter, "If you look at USDA concerns, they are looking at wall surfaces, and record-keeping."

Eric Kleiman of In Defense of Animals, who has maintained an unrelenting eye on Coulston's maneuverings, paints a vastly different picture of TCF's problems: "Since March 1998, the USDA has cited Coulston four separate times for failing to provide adequate veterinary care, involving the deaths of nine chimpanzees. Since August 1997, the USDA has cited TCF five separate times for research oversight committee violations, involving four chimpanzees' deaths. Strandberg's characterization of these grave violations as mere public relations problems demonstrates the NIH's cavalier attitude toward the humane treatment of animals, the conduct of quality science, and compliance with federal law."

On May 10, 2000, NIH took title to 288 of Coulston's chimps, but when questioned in the hearing by Congressman Greenwood about the standards of chimpanzee care at TCF, Strandberg refused to admit that TCF persistently treats chimpanzees inhumanely. Commerce Business Daily has announced that NIH is seeking a Contractor to care for these chimpanzees and "operate and maintain a chimpanzee facility located at the Holloman Air Force base in Alamogordo, New Mexico" part of TCF's operation. A mandatory qualification is that the bidders "have previously demonstrated the ability to provide high quality care for chimpanzees." Despite FDA investigations revealing over 270 violations of Good Laboratory Practice regulations and despite all the chimpanzee deaths, USDA investigations and citations against Coulston, the scientific journal Nature reported on May 18, 2000, that Coulston "is still in the running to bid for contracts to care for the animals."

The Nature article notes that TCF "…lost two such contracts last year after USDA investigations ruled that the facility had violated the Animal Welfare Act. USDA inspectors reported that Coulston's chimp housing was dirty, infested and poorly ventilated." It further highlights Coulston's loss of over $10 million in contracts in the last six years. Internal NIH documents indicate that TCF is on the verge of bankruptcy, and is effectively being propped up by the U.S. government, which awarded $1.1 million in supplemental awards to the lab since June 11, 1999; NIH has directed an estimated $30 million in Public Health Service funds to Coulston's operation since 1993.

Astonishingly, NIH's answer to all this is to pay TCF to care temporarily for the very animals to whom NIH just took title. Worse, TCF may ultimately be the recipient, by default, of NIH's forthcoming five-year contract to provide care for the chimps. So, if you're keeping track: chimpanzees die at The Coulston Foundation; TCF settles charges with USDA by agreeing to divest itself of 300 chimpanzees; NIH takes title to those chimpanzees; and now, TCF may get them right back.

Dr. Strandberg and others at NIH are like addicts who cannot help solve a problem until they admit that there is a problem. Thankfully, with Jane Goodall urging passage of Congressman Greenwood's bill, there is a real chance that all chimpanzees will be appropriately rewarded when their forced service to humans is finished. The chimps at TCF and elsewhere should have this opportunity for safe-haven.

Photo, Dr. Jane Goodall went from observing playful chimps at the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania to testifying before Congress on behalf of their captive cousins in America. (Michael Nichols, Brutal Kinship, Aperture, New York, 1999)