Legislation is pending in both chambers of Congress to provide great apes — the bill specifically identifies chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans, as well as gibbons, which are technically a lesser ape — with protection against invasive biomedical research and to ban federal funding for such research inside and outside the United States. Congress should pass the Great Ape Protection Act summarily.
GAPA — H.R. 1326 in the House and S.3694 in the Senate — finds that apes are “highly intelligent and social animals and research laboratory environments involving invasive research cannot meet their complex social and psychological needs.” For legislative purposes, the regulation is classified as part of interstate commerce because most great ape research is performed by pharmaceutical companies in the development of new drugs.
Perhaps most inspiring is GAPA’s conclusion that there is a moral responsibility (whose, the bill does not specify) to provide quality care for apes used for research. Many such apes were infected with HIV or hepatitis C in the course of being studied. According to the Jane Goodall Institute, there are 1,000 chimpanzees, about 500 of which are government-owned, used for research in the U.S., costing taxpayers $20 to $25 million per year to house.
Furthermore, the JGI argues that ape-based research is a poor methodology in addition to being unethical. Although humans share 98 percent of their DNA with chimpanzees, that small discrepancy can lead to major variations in those diseases in humans. The JGI instead recommends DNA analysis, computer modeling and in vitro testing alternatives.
Many other countries have passed similar legislation in recent years, including the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, Japan, Austria and Belgium. Spain even granted legal rights to great apes in 2008.
Nevertheless, there has been some opposition to this research ban. GAPA would “halt ongoing biomedical research into such diseases as hepatitis C for which no other animal model exists,” a coalition of associations wrote in a letter to Congress. The ban would also hurt efforts on research that can help apes, they argued, including research into the Ebola virus and cardiovascular developments to benefit apes in captivity. Signatories included the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science, the American Psychological Association, the American Society of Human Genetics and the National Primate Research Centers.
GAPA has received little Republican support in the House. Of the bill’s current co-sponsors, 132 are Democrats (two, Bordallo of Guam and Pierluisi of Puerto Rico, are non-voting members) and 14 are Republicans.
In the Senate, the three co-sponsors are Democrat Maria Cantwell of Washington, Republican Susan Collins of Maine and independent Bernard Sanders of Vermont. The bill was introduced just one month ago in the senate and will likely draw more co-sponsors with time.
Hopefully the recent introduction of the Senate bill will help move along the House bill, which has been languishing in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce since its introduction in March 2009. The current congress is dangerously close to concluding, and with matters as pressing as health care, the economy, education reform and two ongoing overseas conflicts taking up so much of the legislators’ attention, a bill like the Great Ape Protection Act could easily decay in committee until the next congress, when it would have to be reintroduced (again, actually, as the bill was first introduced in 2008).
It certainly can help with the budget. Retiring the 500 federally owned chimpanzees would ultimately save about $170 million, the Humane Society of the United States calculated. It’s a drop in the bucket, but because it saves money while ending unethical research methods, the Great Ape Protection Act is a win-win.