Life, Such as It Is, of a Primate in a Research Lab

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently announced its plan to end all federal research performed on chimpanzees, effectively retiring these animals to sanctuaries )http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/19/health/nih-chimpanzee-research-announcement/index.html). One need not oppose the use of animals in bio-medical research to recognize this as a very good thing, just as one does not need a very developed sense of empathy to know that this is a species which can suffer and worry much like our own.

Quite a while back but an experience I remember all too clearly, I spent three years as one of two token non-scientist or lay members on a major university's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee as required by the NIH for animal research funded by the federal government. There I met some very kind and thoughtful people convinced that their work would save lives and committed to providing as humane and pain-free environment as they could for their animals, and I met some incredibly clueless albeit highly educated individuals who neither saw nor treated their "subjects" with anything demonstrating concern much less compassion.

My assignment was to look for ways to reduce the numbers of animals used and to advocate for improved conditions. Maybe I did some good there, I'm not entirely sure, but I know I tried.

One program I place in that limited "win" column, I was able to identify and convince the university to allow the release of quite a few animals who no longer had any potential value to even the most optimistic researcher. And one animal who had literally gotten lost in the system.

Rhesus macaques are smallish monkeys native to South, Central and Southeast Asia. They are commonly used as research subjects, and also commonly exploited as exotic pets. One female housed at the university's vivarium had been purchased for an experiment which had never gone forward, leaving the animal sitting in her cage. Alone. For eleven years. She was cleaned and fed, given her periodic medical examination, but otherwise ignored.

After months of negotiation I was able to convince the university to release her to a primate sanctuary, a release which came along with many commitments for confidentiality. As such, I was to personally handle the first leg of the transfer. And that meant a long car ride with me as driver, the macaque riding shotgun, in a dog crate, seat-belted securely beside me.

At some point in the drive, foolishly oblivious to the very real potential risk, my right hand lazily ended up resting on top of the crate. And at some point after that, several little brown fingers reached out from the grate of the crate to make contact, fingertip to fingertip, with my own. We drove like that for a long, long time.

I followed her progress for a number of years, learning that over time she was able to join a small family of other rescued rhesus monkeys. Considering an average lifespan of 25 years plus the 11 years she'd spent cruelly confined in a cage, I know she's now long since gone.

Based on my own small but unforgettable experience, I assume that there are other monkeys and apes sitting alone in research labs, as I know all too well the conditions those experimented upon must undergo. To live and die such a life is unimaginable to me. As limited as it is, I so applaud this NIH decision.