The Fate of the Alamogordo Chimps


The National Institutes of Health announced that by 2011 it will transfer almost two hundred chimpanzees from the Alamogordo Primate Facility in New Mexico to a lab in San Antonio, Texas, lab for use in invasive research. In 1995, the NIH announced a moratorium on the breeding of chimps in federally-supported labs, and as a result, scientists have developed alternative ways to investigate diseases. But there are still viruses, such as hepatitis C and HIV, that other species simply can't contract. This fact, some argue, makes it prudent to subject chimps to this sort of biomedical testing. Most of the chimps at Alamogordo are elderly, and all have already spent years as research subjects, many involving exposure to HIV or hepatitis C. Many of them are descendants of the chimps initially trained for space flight, as part of the Mercury program.

The scientific controversy has also become a political controversy: New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) among others, have voiced concern regarding the transfer. Richardson is pushing to convert the Alamogordo Facility into a chimp sanctuary, along the lines of the Chimp Haven facility in Louisiana. Alternatively, he suggests, Alamogordo could be used as a site for non-invasive behavioral research. Others, including Jane Goodall, have pointed out the negative political and fiscal implications of moving the chimps to San Antonio for biomedical research.

I appreciate the need for using animals in biomedical research. And I recognize that in the phylogenetic tree of life, drawing a line to distinguish the species that should not be involved in biomedical research from those that could be is mostly an arbitrary process. When each species is related to every other, who is to say which species get differential treatment and why?

An early argument from English biologist and palentologist Richard Owen (the very same Richard Owen who coined the term Dinosauria, meaning Terrible Reptile) was to classify species on the basis of brain anatomy. Owen announced that he had studied primate brains, and that the human brain had unique anatomical structures that were absent from other ape brains. Therefore, he reasoned, humans were a separate sub-class. Even then, in the late 1850s, there was severe disagreement. Darwin wrote, "I cannot swallow Man [being that] distinct from a Chimpanzee." And Thomas Huxley remarked in a lecture that, anatomically, gorillas are as similar to humans as they are to baboons. While the other great apes, and cetaceans, do have smaller prefrontal cortices than humans, the differences are ones of degree, and not of kind. The brain anatomy argument is of little use.

A second proposal is to distinguish species is the basis of overall brain size, if not in anatomical features. This argument can be quickly dismissed, however, as there are many animals with significantly larger brains than ours, such as elephants.


A third proposal has been made to distinguish humans from other animals on the basis of the proportion of a body occupied by a brain, since overall brain size is not useful. The human brain, for example, accounts for 2% of the human body. However, the brain of the tiny owl monkey (a monkey about the size of a pet cat) accounts for 3% of its body. This proposal is just as useless as the last one.

i-c40e45c05d914fa57c9ad5848ff6a969-owl monkey.jpg

Some have proposed that encephalization quotient (EQ) should be used. Encephalization is the folding of the brain and increases volume and surface area, which has been shown to correlate with intelligence. Roughly, encephalization is the degree to which an the brain size of a given animal is larger than would be predicted given the size of its body. In this way, EQ takes allometry into account, so it should give us more mileage than any of the prior proposals.


Some of the proponents of a recent movement to give "human rights" to whales and dolphins cite that fact that dolphins are the second most encephalized beings on the planet, just after humans and just before the other great apes: chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans.

The encephalization quotient seems a promising - if somewhat arbitrary - way of determining which species should be allowed to be involved in biomedical research. To put the question into perspective, an EQ of 1 suggests that relative brain size is exactly as expected. An EQ above 1 suggests that relative brain size is large, and an EQ less than 1 suggests a smaller brain than expected. Humans have an EQ of 7, great apes and some monkey species have EQs between 1.5 and 3, and several species of toothed cetaceans (the odontocetes) have EQs between 4 and 5.

i-0b7f9fda426d9887ae79a6d402b505d8-EQ graph.jpg

What cognitive capacities are correlated with EQ?

Species with high EQ (humans, great apes, odontocetes, and some monkey species) live in social groups with such complex organization that they can only be described as "political." In a 2002 paper, Lori Marino pointed out that these species engage in "cooperation, alliance formation, social maneuvering, manipulation and even deception." All of these cognitive skills are rarely seen outside of these species. In addition, primate and cetacean groups possess unique cultural "traditions." The transmission of information regarding tool use and manufacturing, for example, has been seen in chimpanzees, Japanese macaques, and bottlenose dolphins. Other social behaviors are also passed on via culture in all these species, such as methods of prey capture in orcas, and unique group-specific "dialects" in some whales and dolphins. Several bird species transmit social information culturally (such as in songbirds) and elephants also have possess aspects of culture. Several studies have shown that EQ is positively correlated with average clan size in primates and pod side cetaceans. Encephalization quotient, then, is a very good indicator of complex social abilities.

There is another important cognitive capacity that unites animals with high EQs: mirror self-recognition. Until relatively recently, it was thought to exist only in humans and great apes, though more recently, mirror self-recognition has been found in elephants, African grey parrots, dolphins, and (potentially) in Japanese macaques. Many believe that the mirror self-recognition test underlies a basic sense of self. Indeed, the great apes have shown varying levels of introspection, theory of mind, deception, and moral judgment - all abilities that require at least a rudimentary sense of self.

For me, the encephalization quotient gets the job done. While I approve of and encourage behavioral experiments with such species, I can't stand behind biomedical research on cetaceans, great apes, elephants, or any of the bird species whose cognitive capabilities mirror those of primates and cetaceans. As demonstrated by the mirror test and other experiments, chimpanzees possess a sense of self, and that alone is reason enough not to subject them to further biomedical research. In addition, the movement of the Alamogordo chimpanzees will disrupt their delicately balanced social groups, and will cause significant distress.

I recognize that the use of EQ to determine whether or not a particular species is suitable for biomedical research is at least partially arbitrary, but given its relationship with social cognition and the sense of self, it is a meaningful distinction for me. I further wish to emphasize that I am not suggesting that all biomedical research is unethical. On the contrary, I support most biomedical research; the medical benefits of animal research have been enormous. Clearly, the ethical questions of research with animals are hugely complicated, and I do not profess to have any answers. I know that the research that has been proposed for the Alamogordo chimps is important research, with medical implications, the results of which could save many human lives. The question we must address is if the relative benefits of research with a given species - such as chimpanzees - outweighs the risks to the lives of those animals. For me, with respect to chimpanzees, it doesn't. The governments of Europe made the same decision several years ago, disallowing any biomedical research on great apes. The US should follow suit.

I hope that the US government can put a hold on the transfer of the Alamogordo chimpanzees so that an alternative solution can be developed to meet the needs of the biomedical research community while respecting the complex lives and minds of these chimpanzees, who have already been subjected to so much research. The stated reason for the move of the chimpanzees is cost savings. Should the Alamogordo chimpanzees indeed be moved to San Antonio, I hope that the dollars saved be put into the further development of valid alternative research techniques, so that we can prevent the need for any future biomedical research with great apes.

Relevant links:
Jane Goodall's letter to NIH Director Francis Collins
Speaking of Research
Nature News
Convergence of complex cognitive abilities in cetaceans and primates
Whales, Dolphins, and Human Rights


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Iâm not an expert at, well, anything, let alone biology, so take this for what itâs worthâbut perhaps these could be interesting tangential questions:

I gather that one of the major problems with EQ is that, allometry notwithstanding, we should expect different amounts of encephalisation depending on tissue types and organs. For instance, sense organs require lots of brain matter, muscles require a fair bit, fat and bone and coverings like fur, feathers, or scales require little or no brains at all. Thus, the EQ of cetaceans might be unfairly low: They may have literally tons of blubber adding to their bulk and reducing the EQ, even though we wouldnât expect an animal to need more brains just because it has more blubber. With an EQ modified for tissue types, then, a dolphin might score a lot higher.

Of course, this does not upset any of the conclusions in this articleâif you already argue that dolphins have an EQ too high for medical research to be ethical, then clearly a measure that rates them higher still can only strengthen your argument.

(In previous discussions of this problem that Iâve read, the example the authors always bring up is cetaceans. I wonder if it might apply to other animals tooâbirds, perhaps?, whose bones are very lightweight and perhaps get an unfair boost? But then birds donât have a cerebral cortex and can still problem-solve, so their thinking must be rather alien, and size might not correlate as neatlyâ¦?)

Well, the question is "am I morally obliged (you can use 'ethically' if the word 'moral' gets our hackles up) to treat this creature like a person?"

I'd draw the line at a species being able to exhibit compassion and empathy. Not just to recognise yourself as self, but to recognise others as selves.

That is - not the mirror test, but the one where it turns out a chimpanzee will not take food when another one will be subjected to an electric shock if they do.

Problem is, of course, by that criterion we could justifiably humanely put down quite a few people.

They left out octopodes on that brain-body ratio chart! (It turns out they're right on the lower bound of the "higher vertebrates" polygon.)

All joshing aside, I agree with you.

The idea of "saving money" by moving these animals is bizarre to me. Maintaining an adequate facility for chimpanzees is going to be very costly, where ever it's done. In addition, the most economical course of action (as is done with most laboratory animals) is euthanasia after the animal has ceased to experimentally useful. If NIH's priority was to save money, they would have put these animals down. (It should be noted that, in general, euthanasia is not considered acceptable for chimps in experimental colonies due to the disruption of their social structure. In this case, they would eliminate the colony, and so not have this risk.)

In addition, I can't imagine that chimpanzees with long history of experimental infection and other manipulations are very good subjects for experiments of any sort.

I have to say that I'm somewhat torn on this issue, on the one hand I tend towards agreeing with your view that the cognitive abilities of chimps place them in a special ethical category that might exclude them from invasive research that isn't directed at their own welfare/survival.

On the other hand the concensus in the Hepatitis C research community (for example), including those developing alternative techniques such as in vitro and GM mice (see, is that studies using chimps are still indespensible. HepC is of course a very serious disease, and I favour allowing chimp studies to continue on a limited basis until either vaccines and effective cures are available, or viable alternative methods are available.

It is worth noting that by the time that the last Netherlands banned chimpanzee research and closed down the mast chimp lab in the EU, invasive chimpanzee research had already all but finished. EU scientists effectively decided to outsource the small amount of Hep C research still required to the US, as the Nature News story from 2003 that you linked to made clear in the sentence:

"In rare instances where ape research is crucial to combating a human disease, the panel said, large colonies funded by the US National Institutes of Health could be used."

I don't think that the ban on Chimpanzee research in the EU should be taken as precident for a similar ban in the US, as the EU ban (and earlier member state bans) was implemented against a backgound of little or no chimpanzee studies, and an assumption that the small amount of chimp research still required would continue in the US. It's quite easy to ban something that you are not doing and have no intention of doing.

Ultimately though much more thought needs to go into making sure that when these and other research chimps are retired they get all the appropriate care they need, and that researchers have access to blood and tissue samples from biopsies taken during health checks and after they die. The proposals in the current GAPA are far too vague. The GAPA also defines "invasive" far too broadly, it would effectively ban the taking of blood samples (in order to study infections in the long term) and administration of sedatives required before performing brain-scans required by some studies of chimp cognition. This might have a serious impact on work that most people would consider to be "non-invasive".

So overall I'm just on the side of allowing chimpanzees to be used in invasive research for human benefit, though those involved in this work need to put their case across a lot more vigorously and in more depth and detail than they have done so far, and there needs to be a discussion of how many chimpanzees are required, and which can be retired. One thing that is certain is that the NIH funded chimpanzee research program can't just limp along towards an uncertain (and now potentially unfunded) future as it has been for over a decade now.

By Paul Browne (not verified) on 01 Oct 2010 #permalink

Paul Browne wrote: "Concensus in the Hepatitis C research community... is that studies using chimps are still indespensible."

As consensus in the syphilis research community may similarly have found the Tuskegee experiment indispensable? Or consensus among researchers trying to improve medical care of the German Armed Forces may have found indispensable experiments in which they removed bone, muscle, and nerves from unanesthetized prisoners at Ravensbruck?

Before the quick criticisms: I absolutely do not intend to make light of these human atrocities. The opposite, rather. I would like us to start assessing the claims of researchers who today abuse non-human subjects--while justifying their abuses with the humanitarian and life-saving goals of their work--with the the same seriousness and skepticism as we (retrospectively) apply to those who were abusing human subjects for those same lofty goals, only a few decades ago.

We shouldn't be surprised at the reluctance of the Hepatitis researchers. The same argument--perversely that the status quo is required for progress--is made by any profit-taking industry facing market regulations (see the fossil fuel industry's reactions to cap and trade). Yes, removing chimpanzees will require additional work. Researchers will have to progress and innovate to continue their work. Such is the case whenever the context in which we work is shifted.

What does it mean to say that the work is indispensable? Of course invasive research on chimpanzees is "dispensable;" we can choose at any time to dispense with it. If we are willing to discard the tired notion that man is the measure of all things, we could accept that there are some questions that we simply cannot answer and some problems that we cannot solve if we are to embrace justice.

The Belmont report, on which we base many of our ethical decisions in research, requires justice; it requires us to consider who bears the burden of research and who reaps the benefits. This is the hard lesson that we're still learning after Nuremberg, Tuskegee, and the like. There are practical, social, and moral constraints on what we can learn and do.

In the western tradition, we have, in fits and starts, progressed to extend this sphere of justice from Greek males, to include women, racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, foreigners, prisoners, and those with cognitive disabilities. I hope that one day we can extend that sphere of justice beyond the species boundary as well.

As demonstrated by the mirror test and other experiments, chimpanzees possess a sense of self, and that alone is reason enough not to subject them to further biomedical research.


As I was reading your post, this is the question that I wanted to hear your answer to. Why is possessing a sense of self reason enough? And why do other animals get to be the victims of human experimentation just because they don't have a sense of self?

Zeromh asks "And why do other animals get to be the victims of human experimentation just because they don't have a sense of self?

And, why is mirror self-recognition the Turing test of self-recognition? Would we really expect dogs, for example, who rely a lot on their noses to represent and identify themselves primarily visually? What would an olfactory "mirror" test look like?

@Jason: Ah, that's a good question. It fits in perfectly with some of the things I was thinking about as I read Jason Goldman's post. To wit, that when we talk about the "smarter" animals, what we really mean is "animals who are smart like us." Notice what we put value on: a theory of mind, social abilities, moral thinking. We give animals more credit for being good at the things we're good at, as if we were some sort of objective measure of cognitive capacity.

And since we humans do have those social and moral skills, we feel bad about treating any organism badly that's similar enough to ourselves. If you can see the human in it, you want to protect it. But are less-human organisms any less deserving of protection (whatever "deserving" means)? Or does it simply feel better experimenting on a lizard rather than a chimp?

One way to look at this issue is to ask: What physiological/cognitive properties must an individual posses in order to have (some degree of) moral standing? Sentience? Intelligence? Altruistic behavior and intent? Encephalization quotient? No matter what properties make the list, species membership itself is not among them. As this discussion demonstrates, the question of whether it is acceptable to transfer the Alamogordo chimpanzees to San Antonio is not only a question of whether it should be permissible to perform invasive experiments on chimpanzees, but a question of (a) whether beings with particular physiological and cognitive abilities deserve a particular moral standing, and (b) whether beings lacking those particular physiological and cognitive abilities deserve a different, lesser moral standing. Again, if they do, then species membership seems to have little to do with it. In the end, the reason why it is wrong to transfer the Alamogordo chimpanzees to San Antonio for invasive experimentation is the same reason it is wrong to do the same to humans. These chimpanzees are cognitively and socially complex sentient beings whose interests bestow upon them moral consideration at least equal to some humans. The reasons why it is immoral to imprison innocent, cognitively disabled humans for life and perform invasive procedures on them are the same reasons it is monstrous to transfer the Alamogordo chimpanzees to San Antonio.