Chimp Deal

Money Headed to the Wrong Kingdom Originally published at National Review

The animal-rights/liberation movement is living high on the hog these days. In the last election, for example, activists induced Florida voters to grant gestating sows a state constitutional right to be kept in a space large enough to turn around in. As a consequence, the two pig farms in the state that had used gestation crates to confine pregnant pigs slaughtered their herds and went out of business. This suited the animal liberationists just fine. Their ultimate goal, after all, is not merely the better treatment of pigs but an end to all animal husbandry.

Now we learn that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is planning to spend $24 million to build a retirement community for — no, not people — ”retired” chimpanzees. The chimps in question were bred for medical research. But there are more animals than scientists need to conduct their important work to reduce human suffering, such as in researching cures for malaria.

That leaves the question of what to do with the unneeded chimps. This is an important problem. We humans have a moral obligation to treat animals properly and with humane care. Toward this end, the chimps could be given to well-managed zoos, wild-animal parks, and private primate sanctuaries. As a last and regrettable resort, if there were no option other than maintaining the animals in a cruel or inhumane manner, the chimps could be painlessly euthanized.

Instead, thanks to well-meaning but misguided congressional lawmakers back in 2000, the NIH is going to fund a cushy chimpanzee “sanctuary.” Yes, you read it right. The federal government is going to put tens of millions of your taxpayer dollars into a Sun City for chimps.

In the bottomless pit that is the U.S. budget, $24 million may not seem like a lot of money. But remember, it’s being taken out of funds specifically allotted for NIH, which is supposed to use its money to improve the health and welfare of people. Moreover, with the NIH budget threatened with possible new budget restrictions, this money may soon be desperately needed to fund crucial human needs. Surely research into cancer, Parkinson’s disease, or AIDS should take precedence over paying for chimps to swing happily through the trees.

Or, in the highly unlikely event that the NIH has more then enough in its coffers, here’s a thought: How about transferring that 24 mil to the Department of Veteran Affairs? With a new front in the war on terror seemingly about to open in Iraq, wouldn’t these millions be put to far better use supporting the health needs of our veterans? True, the money would not solve the problem of the shameful levels of inadequate care to which they are too often subjected. But it would still do far more public good there than paying for a chimpanzee sanctuary.

Besides, it wouldn’t be as if rescinding the grant would likely end up hurting the chimps. The animal-liberation movement is rolling in dough. Organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Society of the United States could all pitch in to help fund the sanctuary. Any shortfall could be made up by rich animal-rights supporters, like Sir Paul McCartney, or by vegan members of the Hollywood A-list elite, like Joaquin Phoenix. Or how about a “For the Chimps” concert tour by Barbra Streisand, assuming of course, that she can spare the time from her political consulting.

There is a darker side to this story that we also should ponder. Using NIH money, as opposed to private animal-welfare philanthropy, to fund not just a shelter but a 200-acre retirement home for a few hundred chimps seems part of a wider effort by animal-rights lobbyists and liberationists to transform apes, and eventually other mammals such as pigs, dogs, elephants, and dolphins, into legal “persons.”

Don’t laugh. Legal clinics have already been established at some of our elite university law schools dedicated to obtaining that very objective through the courts. Indeed, advocacy seeking human/ape legal and moral equality is international in scope. The Great Ape Project, for example, explicitly states that its goal is “to include the nonhuman great apes within the community of equals by granting them the basic moral and legal protection that only human beings currently enjoy.”

Making apes morally equivalent to humans would cause tremendous harm. Among the consequences: a total end to using chimps and other apes in medical research.

As unpleasant as it admittedly is, we must, on occasion, use primates as research subjects because of their intelligence and genetic closeness to human beings. Monkeys, for example, have been used in research for the treatment of paralysis caused by stroke and in AIDS research, while chimpanzees were essential to the development of the human vaccine against hepatitis B.

If these mammals became legally unavailable for this purpose, what would replace them? Actually, the question would be better phrased: “Who would replace them?” One possible answer was given a few years back by Princeton professor Peter Singer, the guru of the animal-liberation movement, in an interview with Psychology Today. When asked what alternatives he could suggest to the use of chimpanzees in medical research, he responded:

I am not comfortable with invasive research on chimps. I would ask, is there no other way? And I think there are other ways. I would say, ‘What about getting the consent of relatives of people in vegetative states?’ If you could really confidently determine that this person will never regain consciousness, it’s a lot better to use them than a chimp.

Once that ball got rolling, it wouldn’t stop with the primates. Animal-rights activists seek to prevent us from using all animals in medical research, including mice and rats. Indeed, some animal liberationists have turned violent toward obtaining that very end, attacking laboratories, threatening researchers, and even vandalizing insurance companies that do business with medical-research facilities.

The potential harm and unnecessary human suffering that outlawing the use of animals in medical research is beyond quantifying. Think about it: Animals are used in stem-cell research, to test the efficacy of drugs, and in developing new surgical techniques, just to mention a few. And while some liberationists pretend that computer simulations or human tissue lines could make up the difference, in the real world that simply isn’t, and may well never be, true.

Let me be clear: I recognize that chimpanzees are highly intelligent creatures that exhibit sophisticated social behavior. They have a higher capacity to suffer than do mice, rats, or birds. Hence — as empathetic, moral beings — we have a higher duty to treat them properly and humanely, both when using them as research subjects and after we no longer need them for that purpose.

But as intelligent as chimpanzees are, as sophisticated as their social interactions may be, as easy as it is to anthropomorphize their lives, we must also never forget that they are animals, not persons. Toward the end of alleviating human suffering and curing human diseases, the well-being and welfare of chimps must come second to our own. That should also be true with regard to how we decide to invest our limited public-health resources. It is a disheartening sign of the times that such sentiments are now explosively controversial.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.