Chimps Have Had Their Chips

One of the biggest hurdles apart from Monica that Clinton had to mount at the tail end of his presidency were an excess of chimps. Since the mid eighties, scientists had been breeding chimps like crazy, thinking they'd be the solution to finding an AIDS vaccine. Ultimately, they found out that although chimpanzees could contract the AIDS virus, they rarely became sick from it. That meant it was hard to use the animals to test treatments or vaccines. This left hundreds of chimps with no place to go.

Consequently, Clinton signed the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection (CHIMP) Act into being - an act which vowed to take chimps that had been medically experimented on, as well as the chimps who'd been working at NASA as 'chimponauts' and put them in special chimp retirement homes. There were also some ex-showbiz chimps in the mix - because apparently after six years old chimps are totally unmanageable and difficult to control. One of the most famous federally funded chimp retirement homes is Chimp Haven in Louisiana which was founded by Dr. Brent.

Dr. Brent said, "We'd like to see them in a place where they can use their smarts," she said. "They know how to build nests. They know how to search for termites. They know the things they need to do to live in the wild. I think we have a really unique opportunity to help the chimps become chimps again."

And what of the chimponauts? "I've never worked with chimps more screwy, more altered, more disturbed than the chimponauts," said chimp expert, Dr. Carole Noon. "Each one came in with some kind of crazy behavior."

Amazing what these experts know isn't it? Who would have thought that strapping a chimp into a vessel the size of a hotel fridge would cause it to go nuts?

I suppose you're wondering what a chimp retirement home might look like. Well, it's not bad, they have spacious outdoor yards and playground equipment for swinging and climbing.

They also have TV.

"There are some that like soap operas," said Dr. Linda Brent, a behavioral researcher and director of enrichment at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio. "I knew one named Sammy. He liked to watch Barney. Sometimes, they like shows like Jerry Springer, because it looks like the people are fighting. They like the action."

"It's a good moment for chimps, a very good moment," said Dr. Frans de Waal, a Yerkes primatologist who is on the board of Chimp Haven. "If we are not going to use them for biomedical studies, let's move them to a situation that is attractive to the chimps for retirement."

But wait, why are the chimps, once confined to small cages with electrodes drilled into their skulls being given this luxury treatment? Why weren't the excess chimps simply euthanized?

Hmm. With their striking genetic similarity to people -- chimps and humans share the same blood types, and their DNA is more than 98 percent identical -- chimps are attractive to scientists. The vaccine for hepatitis B, for instance, was developed in chimps, and they are still used to study hepatitis C and malaria, among other diseases.

Another chimp expert called Dr. Zola said that the scientists who mapped the human genome are now planning to do the same for chimpanzees, an effort that may make the apes even more valuable to science. "They may provide us with very important information," he said, "about what makes us human."

In 1997, a panel of scientific experts said reducing the chimp population by euthanizing excess apes would be unethical. Citing the genetic similarities, the experts said the government had "a moral responsibility" for chimpanzees' long-term care. Thus Clinton signed the CHIMP Act in 2000.

So let's face facts. These chimps are getting the special treatment because they are very useful to us as potential scientific subjects in the future. But it could also be because deep down we are afraid that if we don't play nice that one day the chimps may get hold of a few machine guns and create a Planet of the Apes scenario where WE are strapped into spaceships the size of fridges.

This post also inspired the marvelous cartoonist NotKeith to put pen to paper (see above). NotKeith does illustrations based on blog posts that have inspired him. To see if you can be his next inspiration go here.