Prisoners in their own bodies: Medical experiments on chimps
- Published: 03 October 2011
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A recent video of a group of chimpanzees being introduced to the outdoors after years of medical research touched the hearts of many. But while these chimpanzees are now awakening to the outside world, countless others are still suffering unspeakable torture out of public view, writes Susannah Waters.
3 October 2011
They move towards the golden wall of light suddenly exposed by the sliding metal door. Crowding around the exit, they don’t immediately venture beyond the doorframe, instead taking turns to peek out into the vast expanse of brightness.
They then take the plunge and converge on the grass, to bask in the precious sunshine.
The recent footage of a group of ex-laboratory chimpanzees being released onto the sunny playground of a sanctuary in Austria, after enduring decades of invasive medical research, was simultaneously heart-warming and heart-wrenching. The video featuring the primates appeared prominently across the mainstream media, and was also popular on YouTube.
Vision of the chimpanzees cautiously inspecting the open door, glancing around at each other, and hugging before their first steps into the outdoors no doubt resonated with many, because the apes’ emotions were plain for all to see. Their apprehension and excitement was palpable. It wasn’t difficult to recognise the curiosity, the wonder, and the sheer joy they were displaying on their long overdue excursion into the sun.
Three decades of captivity had made this occasion particularly momentous. Ostensibly, the chimps were now (relatively) free.
But although now somewhat physically liberated, what could be the legacy of a lifetime of bondage to medical research?
The powerlessness of laboratory animals is all-encompassing. In his book Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights, Bob Torres posits that the bodies of lab animals transform into “an agent of their own suffering”, a mere tool to another’s ends. In this way, their bodies no longer belong to them, and represent their complete and utter subjugation.
The group of chimpanzees, many of whom were utilised for ultimately unsuccessful research into HIV, will no doubt bear mental scars long into the future.
This is largely because animal experimentation erodes the agency of the testing subject. All inherent value and autonomy of the individual is erased, via the hijacking of their body to serve as an instrument of scientific research. Personalities are suppressed, as individual expression is denied an outlet.
This is no secret. In fact, the premise upon which experimentation is built requires animal subjects to present a homogeneous mass, in order to afford uniformity of test results.
This transformation into anonymous beings serves the experimenters’ interests well, and facilitates the avoidance of ethical considerations.
Basic needs on every level are denied to those incarcerated in testing facilities – access to a normal living environment, a natural diet, the ability to satisfy impulse and instinct, to be amongst kin, and to mate. This denial of both the “self”, and the capacity to carry out behaviours intrinsic to the self, amounts to domination on a most monumental scale.
The subjection of lab animals, therefore, transcends the physical and very much extends to their emotional lives. Their bodies may be an “agent” of their own torture, but so too become their minds. Thoughts and feelings, unable to flow freely and organically, are tightly tethered to – and dictated by – their state of imprisonment.
In the process of experimentation, a laboratory animal’s entire being is taken hostage.
The plight of those who are locked away, robbed of their very essence and exploited for profit, is rarely thrust under the media spotlight. This is largely because operations which exploit and harm animals do their utmost to ensure their actions are concealed from the public eye, in order to safeguard the bottom line.
For example, the clandestine nature of animal testing facilities is an essential facet of the system’s continued survival. Public ignorance of the inner workings of these facilities is convenient for companies conducting animal testing; thus it is very carefully engineered.
Hundreds of thousands of non-human primates are appropriated for scientific research and testing each year, worldwide.
Currently only two countries – the United States and Gabon – continue to conduct experiments on chimpanzees. There are moves, however, to prohibit the use of great apes within research in the US. Bills recently introduced to the Senate and House of Representatives have garnered considerable support.
The recent footage of the chimpanzees in Austria provided an opportunity to reflect on the countless animals languishing in testing facilities around the world – living beings enduring the wholesale violation of mind, body and soul, away from public scrutiny.
Newly released documentary Project Nim, centred on a controversial 1970s social experiment inflicted on a chimpanzee, has also given insight into the extent to which non-human primates have been sequestered by humans for research.
In her book Through a Window: Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe, Jane Goodall, who has long been vehemently opposed to research on primates, comments on the exploitation of non-human animals via vivisection:
“Surely it should be a matter of moral responsibility that we humans, differing from other animals mainly by virtue of our more highly developed intellect and, with it, our greater capacity for understanding and compassion, ensure that medical progress speedily detaches its roots from the manure of non-human animal suffering and despair”.
Primate vivisector John VandeBerg, nervous of the prospect of a US ban on chimpanzee experimentation, has claimed: “It will be a great tragedy for humanity if research with chimpanzees were stopped.”
Conversely, it will be a great moral catastrophe for humanity if the exploitation of our closest living relatives is not brought to an end.
Susannah Waters is associate editor at The Scavenger.
Photo of chimpanzee courtesy of Michael Elliott.