Space chimps’ kin headed to San Antonio research lab

by

Sonya Harvey

sonyaharveytx@gmail.com

ham in "biopack couch"Animal experimentation. Government involvement. Objector whistleblowing. Sound more twisted than a Bobo the Chimp caper?

It’s the continuing saga of the 200-plus chimpanzees housed at the Alamogordo Primate Facility at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. Some are descendants of the infamous Coulston Foundation colony, the so-called space chimps used to test the effects of zero gravity and life-support systems aboard the Mercury capsules prior to manned space flights. (That's "Ham" in his "biopack couch" at right getting ready for the Mercury-Redstone 2 rocket launch in 1961.)

This time ‘round, they face medical research experimentation, mainly for sought-after HIV cures and an ever-elusive Hepatitis C vaccine, when they arrive in our backyard at San Antonio’s Southwest National Primate Research Center as early as next year.

For nearly a decade, the chimps were safely housed at APF, a strictly research-free military facility, as part of an agreement with the National Institutes of Health. But the vegetable-foraging, sun-soaking life the chimps have grown accustomed to is in jeopardy (Flo, the oldest, turns 53 on September 29. Happy birthday Flo!), as an agreement with the private for-profit Charles Rivers Laboratories, who held the 10-year, $42.8 million dollar contract to manage the chimps while housed at APF, expires in 2011.

It’s heartbreaking enough that even the primate-saving Jane Goodall chimed in with a letter she wrote to the health institute stating, “My most immediate concern is for the well being of these particular chimpanzees who will surely suffer considerable physical and emotional distress from this plan.”

The move has sparked outrage among animal rights groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, the Humane Society Legislative Fund, and Animal Protection of New Mexico, which is seeking a permanent sanctuary for the soon-to-be ex-APF chimps.

“This particular group of chimps has spent most of their lives in dire conditions, but the first step is to see them permanently retired from invasive research,” said Laura Bonar, program director with Animal Protection of New Mexico.

The chimps’ plight has garnered the attention of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, Senator Tom Udall and — surprise, surprise — PETA, members of which marched on the steps of the Department of Health and Human Services building in Washington D.C. on September 14.

Clad in ape suits, members locked themselves in cages and hoisted signs reading, "No More Tests, No More Torture" and "Sanctuary, Not Suffering.”

“The NIH hasn’t exactly been public with this move and we want to raise awareness of this issue,” Justin Goodman, associate director of laboratory investigations for PETA, said. “It’s shocking that the U.S. is the only country left in the world still permitting invasive testing on these animals.”

And this at a time when Congress is considering the Great Ape Protection Act of 2010, or S. 3694, which would phase out invasive research on federally owned chimps and shut down testing altogether.

What illicit mischief will Bobo uncover now?

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[added 09/30/10: Reached after deadline, Dr. John L. VandeBerg, director of the Southwest National Primate Research Center told Newsmonger: “Chimpanzees at the Southwest Foundation played a major role in development of the vaccine for hepatitis B, which is now administered to children in 116 countries and has resulted in a dramatic decline in the incidence of hepatitis B in young people."]

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