Monday, July 25, 2005

Retired Primates

Apparently it isn't just humans that move to Florida to retire.

The New York Times Magazine had a great article this weekend about the latest efforts to create retirement villages for the ballooning number of former research chimps in America. Two such facilities, Chimp Haven in Louisiana and the Save the Chimps sanctuary in Fort Pierce, Florida, are trying to reward research chimpanzees for their contribution to science by allowing them to live out their days with fellow chimps in specially designed sanctuaries. Apparently, after age 6, chimps become too strong and unruly to remain research subject, even though they will likely live for another 35 to 40 years. That leaves a growing number of chimps who need care from research facilities that are ill equipped to provide anything beyond basic food and holding cages.

The Save the Chimp sanctuary is particularly interesting - because the organization basically inherited over 250 chimps from a huge research program called the Coulston Foundation that went bankrupt. After renovating the existing Coulston center in New Mexico, the organization set its sights on creating an island paradise for the chimps in Florida. Eventually, all the residents of the cold steel cages of the Coulston facility will be transferred to a series of island habitats being constructed in a former orange grove - complete with everything an aging chimp might want from a senior center.

Chimp Haven is also fascinating in that it is actually a government funded sanctuary as a result of the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection Act passed in the final days of the Clinton administration. Chimp Haven is truly a state-of-the-art, first class chimp retiree resort complete with staff physicians and top of the line entertainment (in the form of the traditional climbing structures and TV/DVD players for the chimps) . Apparently chimps have very particular tastes when it comes to the boob tube, with the younger generation digging Woody Woodpecker and Barney, and the older chimps more content to watch General Hospital or an aggression filled Jerry Springer episode or NFL game. Nature documentaries are apparently popular for chimps of all ages.

Both these facilities demonstrate a new dedication to improving the quality of life of these chimpanzees without exploiting them for scientific research of entertainment and education. Together the facilities will be able to provide homes for hundreds of retired primates.

The article also details the current ethical issues with chimp research, as well as outlining the challenges of teaching chimps to live together in a natural habitat when many of them have been socialized to be more comfortable with humans than their fellow species. While these research chimps would not be capable of being re-introduced into the wild, the thinking is that they deserve a higher quality of life for their remaining years - to be able to run free and do as they please in return for the involuntary roles they play in scientific research.

The article leaves you with the question of whether scientists should even continue to conduct experiments on chimps. For a species that is remarkably similar to us, both physically and socially it seems, the question of conducting research on essentially our genetic cousins becomes a real moral quandary. I was also intrigued by the notion that captive chimps have become a sort-of unique social class of chimp - more comfortable in a mixed human-chimp environment than they are in purely a natural habitat. I'll leave you with a passage from the article that definitely struck me . . .

Most surplus chimps were born in captivity and, after years of proximity to and interaction with human beings, they are, as primatologists say, ''highly enculturated,'' or habituated to life on human terms. Indeed, staff members cited a particular sense of urgency about getting Rita and Teresa to Chimp Haven. They are among the few remaining wild-born captive chimps, and it was hoped that they would ''remember what they did as little kids,'' as Brent put it, and teach those habits to their captive-born brethren, animals that have essentially become hybrids of us and them, a cosmopolitan monkey for whom a sudden and complete severance from us and our ways would constitute the next form of abuse.

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