The pair are, in a sense, the last of their kind: Just four chimps remain at this controversial research facility near Interstate 270 in Rockville. Called Bioqual, the company’s 30-year run of chimpanzee research is ending, victim of a historic shift away from using apes in medical experiments.
On Monday morning, a truck hauled six chimps from Bioqual. Last week, five others were removed. The last four, including Tiffany and Torian, will depart later this summer.
They are returning to where they were born — the much larger New Iberia Research Center, part of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette — where they will be available for more research before they’re retired — someday — to a sanctuary.
“This is another indication that chimpanzee research is on the decline,” said Kathleen Conlee of the Humane Society of the United States, which has painted Bioqual’s chimp research as unethical.
While about 1,000 research chimps live in the United States — down from 1,500 in 1997 — a landmark report from the influential Institute of Medicine (IOM) last December labeled nearly all chimpanzee research as scientifically unjustified.
The final National Institutes of Health-funded experiments at Bioqual tested vaccines against norovirus and respiratory syncytial virus, two studies pointedly called out in the IOM report as unnecessary. Chimps are no longer needed for such work, the report said.
Drug companies, which also fund some chimp research, are also backing away from the practice as lower-cost, higher-tech alternatives emerge.
Video spurs change
For animal-rights activists, the departure of the Bioqual chimps represents a victory; they’ve been agitating to close the facility for decades.
In 1986, activists calling themselves “True Friends” broke into the unmarked, single-story building and stole four infant chimpanzees. They filmed chimps and monkeys stuffed into metal cages the size of ovens — stark footage soon seen by millions on the national nightly news.
The ensuing public outcry galvanized the burgeoning animal rights movement, said Kathy Guillermo of PETA. “The exposure of those horrors led to so much of the reform we’ve seen today.”
John Landon, who had just taken over the company — then called SEMA Inc. — endured a year of protests at his house and threatening late-night phone calls.
Under intense pressure from activists and the Agriculture Department, which regulates animal research, Landon invited Jane Goodall — that human face of the plight of the chimp — to the lab.
She visited. She cried.
Then she worked with Landon to improve the lives of the Bioqual chimps.