Friday, May 2, 2008

Chimpanzee retirement

I Chimp Therefore I Am
Originally uploaded by wokka.
Apparently in the U.S. we have chimpanzee retirement communities. I just learned about this from the Human Resources episode (podcast) of Chicago Public Radio's This American Life (which I love). The episode aired a couple of months ago. I only listened to it now because I like to have a healthy backlog of podcasts so that I don't feel as though I'm in danger of running out.

According to the episode, as well as this article from the NYTimes, we have an excess supply of chimps as a result of AIDS research in the 1980s. At the time it was believed that chimpanzees could be used for medical testing of the AIDS virus. Since researchers figured that testing on chimps might be able to procure a cure, many primates were bred for this purpose. Only, they weren't really useful at all, because they didn't really get sick from AIDS. There are also a bunch of chimps who have been actors in Hollywood. But they are only suitable actors for about 5 years, at which point they become too strong and rebellious to cooperate. So lots of chimps that are no longer useful.

But unlike scenarios where we have too many rats, pigeons, or dogs, we don't put down chimps because we have decided that it is unethical. After all, they share a ridiculous (98%) of our genetic makeup. So in 2000, then-President Bill Clinton signed the Chimpanzee Health Improvent, Maintenance and Protection (CHIMP) Act, and now chimpanzees can spend the rest of their days in locales such as the Chimp Haven. As described in the podcast, chimpanzee retirement experiences range from wilderness preserve to extremely human. Cheeta, who acted in many Tarzan films, is over 75 and spends his days eating Doritos, tickling the ivories now and then, and watching his own films. Some former research subjects have one foot in each world, having to learn how to forage for food in a wilderness setting but also being fed three square meals a day and enjoying General Hospital now and then.

What would you choose?