Recently filed lawsuits, in three New York counties, have the potential to interrupt a variety of biomedical research programs. These lawsuits, having the goal of establishing “legal personhood” for chimpanzees, were filed by a group called the Non-human Rights Project (NhRP) on behalf of four chimps, two of which were confined in a research facility. From the perspective of one who has long been impressed by the cognitive abilities of the higher primates, dolphins and whales, there is definite merit in considering treating these intelligent animals more humanely. In 1977 I had the good fortune to meet Jane Goodall and talked at length with her about her field research on free-living chimps in Africa. She especially impressed me with her strong arguments against any confinement of these creatures by humans. In this vein some have even argued that keeping such highly evolved animals confined against their will for human purposes is tantamount to slavery. Meanwhile PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has been campaigning for many years to have research with live animals banned altogether. While an older organization, the Animals Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) has grown more prominent in recent years with chapters in many law schools, indicative of the increased attention being given to the legal issues surrounding our treatment of non-human animals.
But considered from the perspective of one who has used a variety of captive animals in biomedical research, I can certainly understand the dismay of those whose productive research using chimpanzees may end if these cases are decided in favor of the chimps. In response to these recent lawsuits, members of the National Association of Biomedical Research are gearing up to challenge any laws constraining primate research which is often carried out for the purpose of either learning more about brain physiology or developing vaccines for ultimate use in treating humans for difficult-to-treat infectious diseases.
The approach being taken by the NhRP is based on a 1772 English case of an escaped slave who was caught, imprisoned, and then released by the chief justice of the Court of the King’s Bench under the common law writ of habeas corpus. This case ultimately led to the abolition of slavery in England. The emergence of this current effort to advance the rights of chimpanzees has coincided with a recent action by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) which has, at the urging of the Institute of Medicine (IOM), elected to phase out most of the chimp research being done in its facilities. The NIH currently houses some 360 research chimps and is gearing up to send all but about 50 of them to a sanctuary such as Chimp Haven (www.chimphaven.org) in Louisiana where such animals can live freely “in retirement” while being well supplied with food and veterinary care. Also in keeping with this action, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recently issued a proposed rule that would list captive chimpanzees as an endangered species.
As with the very controversial 2012 decision by the U. S. Supreme Court granting “personhood” to corporations which has prompted a number of national organizations to begin campaigning vigorously for its reversal, I expect that our courts will be hearing many interesting arguments from both sides of this issue. I also suspect that any decisions that limit live animal research significantly will be difficult to make universal (as have efforts to stop whaling) and, for better or worse, result in some animal research being moved “offshore.”