Saturday, September 10, 2011

Protecting the Great Apes from Intrusive Experiments

I recently read a paper published by Dr Hope R. Ferdowsian in which she and her team explore the effects of captivity on primates and their use in research.  "Since nonhuman animals, including chimpanzees, are frequently used in research, there is an ethical imperative to understand the potentially adverse effects of captivity and their use in research.  The association of pathological behaviors with captivity in nonhuman primates has been noted for decades" says the report.
It goes on to explain that symptoms of PTSD, depression and anxiety disorders have been proven to result from severe repeated trauma in humans.  However, no study of psycho-pathology has ever been conducted on nonhuman primates.
Since chimpanzees, like all great apes, demonstrate abilities of self-awareness even in infancy, they have strong attachment to their mothers and have a great memory of events and places, it would be logical to find out if captivity and experimentation can lead them to exhibit mood and anxiety disorders.
The study conducted by Dr Ferdowsian and her team aimed at finding out the prevalence of behaviors in chimpanzees that would compare to human psychiatric disorders.  They used the DSM-IV criteria for PTSD and depression and developed an alternative set of criteria for chimpanzees where those used for humans required the use of language.  For instance "recurrent distressing dreams of the event" was removed from the list since there is no way of knowing if a chimpanzee can dream about a traumatic event.
They compared reports of chimpanzees from laboratories used for HIV, hepatitis and other medical experimentation, as well as chimpanzees living in sanctuaries in Africa, whose histories included being orphaned and violent human conflicts.  The case studies included, among others,  Negra, 36 year-old female taken away from the wild as an infant and held in captivity for medical research her whole life and Mawa, a 14 year-old male who had been captured for the pet trade and had serious injuries when he arrived at the sanctuary where he now lives.  Both exhibited a depressed hunched posture, avoidance behavior, poor attention span (chimpanzees are extremely good at focusing on a task for consecutive hours) and did not show significant interest in grooming (which is the core of social interaction for chimps).  Both showed improved behavior and mood after months spent in their respective sanctuaries.

Dr Ferdowsian and team write: "Our study shows that previously traumatized chimpanzees demonstrate persistent abnormal objective symptoms and that these symptoms cluster into syndromes that are similar to PTSD and depression".

You can request a copy of the study from the "Physicians for Responsible Medicine" organization.

This leads me to a story that many of you probably read about this week - i.e. the release of 30 chimpanzees from a medical lab.  The most popular video on the subject shows the chimps hugging and smiling when they see the sky and the grass of their new enclosure at the Austrian Gut Aiderbichl sanctuary.  The chimps had been in captivity for over 20 years, kept in isolation never seeing the light of day.  You can see a summary of their lives at the sanctuary website.

Great apes are highly social creatures with complex social lives, they are very intelligent, self aware and suffer from similar psychological disorders as humans.  They are also extremely endangered.  Gorillas are on the brink of extinction, so are bonobos and orangutans.  The chimpanzee population is decreasing rapidly as well.  This is why it is so important that we, humans, act on their behalf and give them a voice.

Please join me in supporting the Great Ape Protection Act 2011.  Spain was the first country to adopt it a couple of years ago.  We do not want to remain silent.
More information also available at the Great Ape Project website.
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