Chimpanzees have a sense of fair play. They feel empathy; a chimp will yawn when another does. They cooperate, and after a fight, they seek to reconcile. These insights—that chimpanzees possess an innate morality once thought to be uniquely human—emerged in part from studies conducted at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University. But such findings led to an uneasy question: If chimpanzees are so much like us, should we experiment on them at all?
As scientists grapple with that dilemma, work at Yerkes is likely to change fundamentally. Last year, the National Institutes of Health announced it would retire most of its chimpanzees and require NIH-funded researchers to meet strict new criteria if they want to work with the animals. Yerkes has seventy-five chimps, and while none are owned by NIH, some are involved in NIH-funded research. Nationally, the shift in thinking about chimpanzees is likely to halt virtually all research except observational studies and some limited behavioral studies.
Yerkes—which conducts only behavioral chimpanzee research—had nonetheless been the target of animal rights protests long before the latest NIH ruling. The center and its staff are, understandably, media shy and closemouthed. “We are in contact with NIH officials to determine what of our NIH-funded research with chimpanzees can continue and what must stop,” Lisa Newbern, chief of public affairs, said in an email. Yerkes is interested in retiring about half of its chimps to a sanctuary when space is available, she said.
But finding sanctuary is not simple. Retirement facilities—such as Chimp Haven in Louisiana, whose residents include chimpanzees used in biomedical research—have limited space.
Noting similarities between humans and chimps is not new. Robert M. Yerkes founded the first chimpanzee research center in Orange Park, Florida, a facility that eventually was taken over by Emory and moved to Atlanta in 1965. In his 1925 book Almost Human, Yerkes described the humanlike emotions of chimpanzees.
But for decades, some researchers focused not on emotion but on biology; chimpanzee DNA is 99 percent identical to that of humans, making chimps sought-after biomedical test subjects.
In 2010, the NIH gathered an expert panel to look at chimpanzee studies. The experts’ conclusion: Because chimpanzees are so similar to humans, research needs to meet a high standard. Indeed, most biomedical research on chimpanzees isn’t even necessary, they stated. If chimpanzees are used in behavioral research, they must have a choice about whether to participate, and must be housed in a way that mirrors their natural environment, with family groups and space to climb. NIH agreed, and the paradigm shifted quickly.
Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed classifying chimpanzees as an endangered species even in captivity, a classification that would further restrict their use in research.
And the Nonhuman Rights Project argued in a New York court that chimpanzees should be considered “persons,” not “things,” and have a right to liberty under the state’s common law. They didn’t prevail, but the legal fight continues. Past research supports the personhood argument, says Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and senior lecturer at Emory who is also science director for the Nonhuman Rights Project. “Now that we know who they are,” she says, “we need to change.”
This article originally appeared in our March 2014 issue under the headline “Retirement Planning.”