Tuesday, August 06, 2002

According to documents obtained from the National Institutes of Health, PFA is working to maintain productive breeders to supply future research subjects. Several male chimpanzees have been vasectomized and are used as “teachers,” rather like senior gigolos in a government-funded chimp bordello.


Sunday, 4 August 2002

Beyond local rumors and folklore, few people know about 78 chimpanzees living just outside Mesa.

The federal government has put millions of dollars into the primates' desert home over the past two decades. Sometimes, the animals have been rented out for medical research. Mostly, experts study their behavior.

The compound is just far enough from the reaches of suburban sprawl that few wanderers happen upon it, and animal rights activists rarely bother to take the trip out.

But a new band of challengers could get past the remote location and razor-wire fences. These activists want legal rights for the country's more than 1,500 captive chimps.

Some chimps, they say, could use a good lawyer.

"People think we're a bunch of nuts talking about giving them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," said Craig Stanford, a primate researcher with the University of Southern California. "We're talking about freedom from invasiveness and not being stuck in a 3-by-3-foot cage," he said.

At the Primate Foundation of Arizona, the animals live in large, vaulted cages, indoors and out, filled with toys and climbing devices. They listen to Pavarotti and Patsy Cline - they like everything but hard rock. They hang out and preen each other and dine on fresh fruit and monkey chow. This year, an Arizona State University symphony performed for them. The owner of the nonprofit organization, Jo Fritz, has published dozens of articles on how to best care for chimps. She's nationally known for resocializing chimps who are "retired" from medical labs, zoos, TV commercials, even the Ice Capades.

Fritz declined to comment for this article, saying she doesn't like to draw attention to the facility because of security reasons. Sometimes fringe activists or the curious wander into the chimps' world and lash out. Some have threatened to raid the compound to let the chimps out.

"The chimpanzee, perhaps more than any other living being, has served to blur the line that we once thought so sharp between humans on the one hand and the rest of the animal kingdom on the other." - Jane Goodall, primate researcher

One infamous tape shot in a chimpanzee breeding center says it all for Doug Cress. The first time the humans came, they shot a female chimpanzee with a dart gun. She woke up to find her baby gone. The second time they came, she saw the dart gun and she tried to hide her baby. The third time they came, she saw the dart gun and she handed her baby over.

"She knew it was coming," said Cress, executive director of the Great Ape Project, an activist group formed in 1993 to protect captive great apes.

No chimp, Cress said, should live in a cage or be used in research like at the Primate Foundation of Arizona.

"I've spent a lot of time around chimps," Cress said. "They scheme, they're smart, they communicate, they think ahead, they plan, they mislead, they lie, they go out of their way to comfort you."

Chimps are so akin to humans - they share 98.4 percent of our DNA – that for decades they've been dubbed the perfect subjects for medical research. Credit the success of many vaccines to research done on chimps.

But only in the 1980s did the country develop a glut of research chimps. As the nation started to panic over the rising number of AIDS deaths, the National Institutes of Health launched an unprecedented chimpanzee breeding program, throwing millions of dollars toward chimp breeders, including the primate foundation.

But it turns out chimps rarely develop AIDS symptoms, and research on the seemingly human chimps has become somewhat socially passe. Now the government has more than 1,500 chimps on its hands. Most are rarely used in research.

They can cost at least $15 or $20 per day, per chimp, and live into their 40s or 50s.

"I do the best I know how, the very best I can. I mean to keep on doing this, down to the very end. If the end brings me out all wrong, then ten angels swearing I had been right would make no difference. If the end brings me out all right, then what is said against me now will not amount to anything." - Abraham Lincoln

Fritz quoted Lincoln in 1984 in a newsletter she sent to other chimp caretakers. Taking in abandoned chimps, she and her husband had found, was no small feat.

The first three chimps arrived at the downtown Phoenix apartment of her husband, Paul, in 1968. Paul, a Phoenix Zoo zookeeper, heard they were homeless and about to be euthanized. Word spread, and soon the Fritzes had seven more chimps on their hands.

Researchers were just realizing the intelligence of the animals in the 1970s. The Fritzes were realizing the number of chimps who needed a good home.

Within two years, they had 23 chimpanzees. They struggled to make it on Paul's salary and small donations.

In 1986, they were one of the first to win an award from the health institute to breed chimps. The condition: The animals were made available for research. The Fritzes put millions of dollars into a facility in the desert, a creative use of an abandoned building.

Now the foundation touts a full-time veterinarian, interns who cycle in from throughout the country and a relationship with researchers at Arizona State University. They monitor the chimps' mental and physical health. No chimp at the facility has a serious disease, but several have been used in laboratories around the nation.

It's an evolving process to keep the animals happy. Right now their care givers are developing a remote control system so the chimps can choose their own music.

But it's not enough for activists who say they want the chimps to enjoy a true retirement with lots of space, a life beyond steel cages and a guarantee they will never participate in research again.

The Chimpanzee Collaboratory, a coalition of high-ranking academics, will meet in September at Harvard University to discuss a plan to gain legal rights for the animals. Steven Wise, a lecturer of animal law at Vermont Law School and Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, is drafting a declaration of rights for apes that he hopes international leaders will sign by 2010. Countries such as England and New Zealand have already sworn off most types of chimp research, and might back the cause.

In the United States, the battle for ape rights might come through lawsuits that carve out precedents to protect the animals, said Rick Bogle, founder of the Primate Freedom Project.

It's a slow road that might start with Moe, a 36-year-old chimp in California. Moe bit two people, prompting the five-year legal battle between his owners and West Covina, Calif., where they live. Moe has been directed from facility to facility, and activists such as Wise say someone should be representing him in court.

"What's likely to happen is as old ignorant judges die and new judges come in who have been exposed to some of the literature and have an idea of who these animals are, they're going to be more interested in listening to arguments," Bogle said.

Roberta Wright, a Tucson resident and founder of Supporting and Promoting Ethics for the Animal Kingdom, toured the primate foundation in 1999. She remembers chimps in the large cages, rattling the bars. She hopes for more for them.

"These animals are so huge and strong, and when we came through and saw them, they would throw themselves against the cage," she said. "That's what was so mind-boggling - it was so incredibly loud. It was, to me, very criminal to have these strong, intelligent animals behind bars in cages. This is their reaction to being imprisoned."

- Tribune writer Kirsten Searer can be reached by e-mail at ksearer@aztrib.com or by calling (480) 898-6842.