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The BBC's Horizon on chimp "retirement homes"
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Friday, 2 October, 1998, 11:31 GMT 12:31 UK
Retirement homes for chimps?

Ageing chimps who have been exposed to deadly human diseases should be put into "retirement homes", according to a US foundation.

The Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio wants to put chimps into large "retirement homes" in the warmer parts of the North America.

But each home would cost several million dollars to set up. The scientists believe pharmaceutical companies and the government should cover the costs.

They argue humans should pay their debt to the chimps. However, it appears no-one is willing to foot the bill.

Further research

Instead many of the elderly chimps, some of whom are blind and have not had any experience of the outside world, are being sent for further research.

Dr Fred Coulston
Dr Fred Coulston: chimps can help with research on ageing
Many of the chimps were used for research into space programmes and airplanes.

Last month, the US Air Force said its chimps should be sent to the Coulston Foundation instead of into retirement.

The foundation will study the kind of diseases chimps develop in their old age.

Dr Fred Coulston told the BBC's Horizon progamme, Chimps On Death Row: "They are like humans in a hospital."

He wants to use them to investigate diseases like diabetes and prostate cancer.

"These are animals that have a value throughout their lives for medical understanding of the diseases of old age."


But many disagree. Among them is biologist Dr Jane Goodall, who in the 1960s produced research on chimps in Africa showing they had emotions and could make tools.

Jane Goodall
Dr Jane Goodall: "Making chimps suffer cannot be justified"
"I didn't realise what a stir this would make. Man thought he was unique because he could make tools then," said Dr Goodall.

The moral dilemma over whether to use chimps in experiments has split scientists.

Some say they regret using them, but feel there is no other way to find vaccinations for deadly human diseases.

Dr Ronald Bontrop of the Biomedical Primate Research Team in Holland, which provides chimps for experiments in the UK, said: "If we need to test vaccinations that we want to introduce at a clinical stage they could save millions of lives.

"Chimps are suffering, but this has to be set against the high number of humans who die from these diseases. I think we have chosen the right path for safety."

The research centre is using chimps to test drugs for a new strain of hepatitis.

This involves taking regular blood and liver samples from the infected chimps.

Offered rewards

Other centres are looking at ways of using chimps where they freely submit to tests after being offered rewards.

The use of chimps has dropped in recent years after the last explosion over the Aids epidemic. But scientists say there could always be other new diseases.

Chimp in experiment
Early experiments on chimps tested their reaction to jet speed wind blast
Attitudes to chimps have come a long way. In the 1950s, chimpanzees were not considered to be different to other animals.

The Holloman Air Development Centre in New Mexico began doing experiments on the effects of high altitude on animals.

They brought over wild chimps from Africa which they used on experiments which were too dangerous for human volunteers.

They tested out the first ejection seats, for example. They were also strapped into rocket-powered sleds to test whether they could survive a jet speed wind blast.

They were thrust through the air at over 1,000 miles an hour. One suffered massive burns. Others died.

Space research

Jane Goodall's research brought some changes, but the US space programme provided a further setback for chimps.

A chimp involved in research into a new strain of hepatitis
A chimp called Ham was the first space explorer.

He was trained to push levers in a space ship and launched in a rocket, wearing a space suit fitted with a catheter.

Ham survived the trip. He died in 1983 and is buried next to the Holloman centre. 1967 marked another change in attitudes. A psychology student, Roger Fouts, began teaching a chimp sign language.

His work showed chimps could communicate and could even learn the rudiments of grammar.

The chimp has now learnt over 100 signs, including insults.

Fatal diseases

But then came research showing chimps could contract human diseases.

Breeding centres
Retirement homes could be bigger versions of chimp breeding centres
This led to them being used to find drugs to treat hepatitis B which affected millions in the 1960s and could prove fatal.

Chimp breeding centres were set up to meet the demand which tailed off in the 1970s until the Aids epidemic.

Many of the chimps that have been infected are still being held in captivity for fear they could spread disease.

But it is how they are looked after and the question of humans' debt to the animals which is one of the big moral dilemmas for the scientific world.

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05 Nov 98 | Antibiotics
Poverty aids rise of superbugs
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