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February 23, 2010

Remembering Jerom the Chimpanzee

A laboratory caretaker remembers a special chimpanzee on the anniversary of his death

by Rachel Weiss

Fourteen years ago this month, a chimpanzee named Jerom died at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia.

He was only 13 years old and had been infected with three different strains of HIV during experiments conducted over the course of his young life. I cared for him as he grew ill, in a dungeon-like building surrounded by twelve other chimps.The building itself was cold and wet, made of concrete and steel, and was not a place for a chimpanzee to grow up to learn to live as a chimpanzee.

Prison-Like Conditions

Jerom’s life was characterized by stress, fear, sadness, loneliness, and pain. Researchers infected other chimps with the virus that sickened Jerom; they ended his life and eventually, other infected chimpanzees died. I cannot say whether or not they died of AIDS, but I do know that biomedical research and the rigors of laboratory life caused their deaths.

While HIV research using chimpanzee subjects is waning and fewer federal dollars fund chimp-based studies, these individuals continue to be used in an attempt to learn about human diseases, including hepatitis C and malaria. The chimpanzees used for those projects suffered as Jerom did—ripped from their companions and subjected to terrifying and painful medical procedures while confined to sterile and restrictive living conditions.

Chimpanzees not used for active studies are also subjected to the same prison-like conditions. Laboratories were not built to encourage the robust and dynamic chimpanzee culture seen in the wild; they were built to manage research subjects and allow researchers easy access to their bodies.

Little Has Changed

The federal law meant to protect laboratory animals, the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), enacted in 1966, does very little to enhance their lives. For a striking demonstration of the slow evolution of chimpanzee care under the AWA, watch Frederick Wiseman’s 1974 documentary Primate, which was filmed at Yerkes, read my description of laboratory life during my time at the facility from 1994 to 1996, and then watch footage from the New Iberia Research Center collected by The Humane Society of the United States in 2008.

While the law has resulted in some small improvements to laboratory life over the course of these four decades, really, very little has changed. The AWA does nothing to eliminate the confinement, boredom, stress, and pain of biomedical research, and it certainly does nothing to prevent or inhibit invasive biomedical research.

Chimps Deserve Better

Why do chimpanzees matter? They matter because they are individuals—complex beings with spirit and personalities all their own, just like your sister, your favorite teacher, your best friend. And they matter because they are a symbol of how we, as Americans, treat other species. And because they are an example of wasteful government spending—we now know that invasive research on chimpanzees has yielded very little benefit for humans, and has possibly slowed the development of alternatives to chimpanzee subjects.

The passage of the Great Ape Protection Act (GAPA) will prohibit invasive research on chimpanzees and other apes, and require the lifetime care of government-owned chimpanzees in sanctuary. GAPA has had momentum and currently has the support of 142 co-sponsors, in the U.S. House of Representatives, but is far from being enacted—although your help can make it happen. Please take a moment to contact your representative and ask him or her to support this vital piece of legislation.

Fourteen years after his death, I still think of Jerom every day. He opened my mind to the idea that we humans have a serious responsibility to treat other species with respect—something Jerom saw so little of in his life. It’s time to end the barbaric practice of chimpanzee research—for us and for them.

Rachel Weiss formed the Laboratory Primate Advocacy Group, Inc., with five other former primate caregivers and research technicians in 2000. She remains a committed advocate for chimpanzees used in research. She dedicates this article to Jerom, to Carole Noon, who dedicated her life to removing the bars from the lives of hundreds of former research chimps, and to Tom, who, after so many decades in cages, got to climb a tree.

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