A Necessary Evil?

December 14th, 2011 by J.B.

A recent study on chimpanzee behavior has caught the attention of the media. It’s formally titled The Neural and Cognitive Correlates of Aimed Throwing in Chimpanzees: A Magnetic Resonance Image and Behavioral Study on a Unique Form of Social Tool Use, but if you’re wondering why the media would care so much about this subject, it may help to know that some people refer to it as “The Poop-Throwing Study.” Some journalists just love an excuse to put the word “poop” in their stories.

In fact, it’s not really about poop-throwing, but about aimed throwing in general (some chimps just happen to throw feces because that’s what’s available to them, and because they know that it will provoke a strong reaction from the recipient). Specifically, the authors propose that the development of brain areas responsible for aimed throwing, a complex behavior requiring both planning for the future and knowledge of velocity and trajectory, laid the foundation for the development of human language.

The origin of human language is an interesting subject and chimpanzee caregivers, much like journalists, love to discuss poop. So I was interested in reading this paper. But reading about the methods reminded me that there is a whole world of invasive research on chimpanzees that goes largely unnoticed.

For this study, the authors used 78 chimpanzees from the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Georgia. The chimps were separated from their social groups and anesthetized. They were then transported to an MRI machine where their brains were scanned. Following the scan, they remained in isolation for 6-12 hours until the anesthesia wore off.

Anesthetizing a chimpanzee is something that should never be taken lightly. From a chimpanzee’s perspective, the options range from bad to worse. For this study, the laboratory immobilized the chimpanzees using ketamine, an anesthetic commonly used at zoos, sanctuaries, and laboratories due to its high safety margin. It’s very difficult to lethally overdose a chimpanzee on ketamine, but that doesn’t mean that the drug’s effects are pleasant. Ketamine is a dissociative drug; it creates perceptual distortions and a feeling of separation from one’s own body. It is related to PCP and is similarly abused as a street drug. Some chimps tolerate ketamine better than others. One chimpanzee that Diana and I worked with at the Fauna Foundation, named Billy Jo, had a terrible reaction to ketamine. In the laboratory, he chewed his own thumb off while under anesthesia – on two separate occasions. Watching him recover from anesthesia, even in the caring environment of the sanctuary, was heartbreaking.

Many captive chimps will present a part of their body to the technician for injection. Either they have learned the hard way that it’s easier than being darted, or they have been trained through operant conditioning. I know that Yerkes uses operant conditioning for this purpose, so I’m sure that many of the chimps used in this study cooperated with their own anesthesia. But training is time-consuming, and some chimps are less receptive to training than others (and who can blame them if they refuse to cooperate!), so I would also guess that many had to be darted. Chimps are usually darted using an air- or CO2-powered pistol to shoot pressurized or explosive darts which eject the anesthetic drug upon impact.

Anesthesia is a sad fact of life for captive chimps. There are times when medical intervention is necessary and in the best interest of the chimpanzee, and most procedures require a chimpanzee to be immobilized for their safety and ours. But if we are going to separate a chimpanzee from her family, shoot her with a dart, and inject her with drugs that can induce fear, confusion, and anxiety, I think we need a better justification than curiosity about the origins of language.

Biomedical research involving chimpanzees is commonly portrayed as a necessary evil, but there is nothing even remotely necessary about research like this. MRI’s and PET scans may technically be noninvasive, but not when used on chimpanzees against their will. At a primatology conference I attended last year, many researchers whose careers revolve around brain imaging were upset because the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act would ban experiments like these. Here’s hoping we can get it passed soon.



6 Responses to “A Necessary Evil?”

  1. Linda (Portland, OR) says:

    It can’t be said enough……………..bless everyone at CSNW for all you do for our CE7 as well as other chimps around the world.

    Thank you for continually educating us J.B.

  2. Amy M says:

    J.B — Thank you for this wonderful post.

    I think that in addition to the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act, someone should introduce legislation for job training funds, to retrain the “scientists” doing flawed and unnecessary research and give them some skills that are useful to society.

    It will be interesting to see the IOM report tomorrow (although with NIH planning to move ahead with chimp research without even waiting for the report, I don’t know if I should have any hope). At the hearings in August it was interesting to hear the panel members ask the researchers whether their research was actually necessary.

    Learning about chimps and their use in research has really changed my view of science and “scientists.” I used to think scientists were creative, iconoclastic, questioning and always looking for the truth. Instead I think too many of them are more interested in continuing to make their living in the same way, whether it’s actually useful (vs. just intellectually stimulating for them) or justifiable. I don’t see how they live with themselves.

  3. Dr. Mel says:

    Well said J.B. Worthy topic. Many people are unaware of the behavioral research that is in most cases just as traumatic and leads to just as much suffering as Bio-medical research. Here is to hoping the chimps catch a break tomorrow…kicking the can a little further down the road.

  4. Thanks so much for this post! I had just assumed that behavioral research meant watching chimpanzees as they behaved! I knew that the social conditioning and lack of bedding materials at Yerkes are hardships on the chimps there, but I did not realize how traumatic medical procedures were used as well.

    As I wrote a little bit about the fight over Wenka, I heard from a couple of former Yerkes employees, and conveyed their thoughts in the blog post http://chimptrainersdaughter.blogspot.com/2011/10/ex-yerkes-employees-tell-me-about-wenka.html. Your blog is a real eye opener! I had assumed, from employees’ comments to me, that brains were only scanned after they died.

    While we certainly need to direct our efforts at stopping the continued bioinvasive research, you show the need for reform in the so-called behavioral arena as well. Please keep writing about chimpanzee research, so we can better understand – from a scientific perspective as well as a moral one – what is involved.

  5. lynn says:

    thanks for this JB. Heartbreaking. It’s a great reminder for us to really understand why we need to keep the heat on our state senators and our local reps in congress about The Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act. Please keep letting us know how we can help push this forward 🙂

  6. Sara Lissabet, Fairfax says:

    I have to be honest by saying that two decades ago, I agreed with the necessary evil argument regarding medical research on chimpanzees. It was something that was distasteful to me but for the sake of humanity I felt it was justified. Within a span of 15 years I was changing my opinion on the matter. I felt that medical advancements made it no longer necessary to subject our closest animal relatives and the plight of chimpanzees used in research was growing.

    I found the CSNW story through a news article and came to site just before the Cle Elum 7 came to you. In the ensuing years, as I’ve come to know Foxie and her troll-babies, shy-and-wise Negra in the safety of her blankets, artistic and stylish Jamie and her boots, Burritto and his obsession with food, and Missy, Jody and Annie, the pendulum of my beliefs have swung completely in the opposite direction.

    My beliefs are cemented that subjecting these wonderful individuals to this kind of treatment is a blight on the history of humans and a travesty of our compassionate nature. I honor and respect the chimpanzees and other monkeys and apes that have given their lives to the advancements of science but it is long past the time that we should have come to our senses and embraced the beauty of the free nature of our closest animal relatives.

    I am indebted to the staff and caregivers of CSNW, through the constant posting and sharing the lives of the 7 with us, for giving me a chance to see how wrong I once was and how right is the direction the U.S. is finally moving.