Did President Obama Play Secret Santa?

As Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico packed his bags and prepared to relinquish his office, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) gave him a beautiful going-away present. It was something that the governor had journeyed to Washington back in August to ask the NIH to do: call a halt to the federal government's absurd and cruel plan to take 202 chimpanzees -- who had once involuntarily served as research subjects for the U.S. Air Force and were now supposed to be "retired" -- and subject them once again to years of experiments. I wondered on this very blog if President Obama would step in to save the chimpanzees, and perhaps now he has.

The "Alamogordo chimpanzees," as they are known, had been in limbo for years, left to languish alone at Holloman Air Force base, isolated from each other and locked in barren cells, with only a cement slab to sleep on and with nothing to see or do -- certainly sheer torture for a thinking, feeling being of any species, let alone the species closest to our own. Then, some years ago, the process of rehabilitation and socialization had begun, some 200 chimpanzees having been released to sanctuary, until, that is, the NIH put the kibosh on it. The chimpanzees had finally been given blankets, which they wrapped around themselves at night and used to cover their heads; they had started to hold hands with fellow chimpanzees through holes knocked in the walls; and they were given objects to handle and rattle and puzzle over. Plans were made to bring them to lush plots of land in Florida, surrounded by moats, where they could become themselves again, forming troupes and tribes. You can see "the ones that got away" before the NIH's foul decision here. You can even sponsor one of them, like Gromek, who was captured as a baby in Africa in 1962, wrenched away from his mother for use in the U.S. Air Force space program. Gromek spent more than 40 years in a cell and makes it clear, by turning his back, that he wants nothing to do with human beings anymore.

As recently as two months ago, NIH had stubbornly refused to listen to Mr. Richardson or anyone else appealing for mercy for the chimpanzees. But, over the months, hundreds of thousands of people have come forward to join the governor, including retired astronauts; the world's leading authority on chimpanzees, Dr. Jane Goodall; and, or so it seemed, almost everyone who has ever watched a National Geographic special or read anything about chimpanzees in the wild or in captivity. Chimpanzees are known for their ability to use tools, which they have sometimes secreted away until their zookeepers have left and then used to undo locks and escape their cages. They are known for their fierce defense of their families, their dances of great abandon in the rain and under waterfalls, and their perhaps less attractive but very "human" traits, like the propensity to lie, cheat, steal, and be craftily unfaithful to their mates.

In the end, the weight of public and professional opinion won for the apes, or was it that President Obama, who is known for taking the more diplomatic route over the swift kick up the backside that I would have favored, had a quiet word in the secretary's ear?

It has been almost 30 years since chimpanzee experimenter Dr. Alfred Prince appealed to his colleagues, gathered at an NIH symposium in Washington, to join him in recognizing chimpanzees as the intelligent, social animals they are and urged the NIH to adopt a "Chimpanzee Bill of Rights." Over the holidays, the NIH said, in announcing the cancelation of the transfer plans, that it has simply "put on hold" the plan to ship the chimpanzees to Texas -- to be treated as living test tubes, to be infected with viruses, and to have their organs biopsied -- while it studies the situation for a couple of years. But let us hope that, in reality, this announcement of a halt to the plan means that the moment has arrived when the chimpanzees' right to live unharmed and as individuals, rather than as test tubes, will be accepted as part of our evolving understanding of other forms of life.

Regrettably, 14 chimpanzees had already been trucked out of Alamogordo and into laboratory cages when the call came. They were not lucky enough to scrape by under the wire. The NIH must be asked to return them to Alamogordo and allow them to resume their long-awaited rehabilitation.