Chimps future hangs on ethical decision

By PATIENCE COLLIER, staff reporter

The welfare of the remaining chimpanzees at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute has been a tense issue since last November, when the death of one chimpanzee, Dar, brought the group number too low for the animals’ social well being.

The psychological welfare of the chimpanzees at the CHCI has been in question for several months. If Central does not bring in at least three new chimpanzees, the two remaining animals will be removed from campus.

Central is one of two universities in the world with the program CHCI offers, so the decision Central must now make is whether to bring in additional chimpanzees, and maintain the program of research, or allow the two remaining chimpanzees to be relocated out of Central’s care, to a place where their social needs could be met.

Although the physical facility for the chimpanzees is owned by Central, the animals themselves are under custody of Friends of Washoe, a non-profit organization that has been funding and supporting the mission at CHCI since Washoe, the first chimpanzee, was brought to Central.

The anthropological research at CHCI would be continued with data recorded of the chimpanzees while they were in residence, although original research and programs teaching students how to care for chimpanzees directly would slow or stop.

Students in the Primate Behavior program have been working hard to keep Tatu and Loulis, the two chimpanzees still living at Central, from being relocated. Julie Reveles, one of the caregivers in the Primate Behavior program, has been reaching out to student groups for support.

“The best possible option for the chimpanzees is to remain in their home,” Reveles said, explaining that the chimpanzees are in their thirties, which is elderly for their species.

“They would have to be sedated, in order to move them,” Reveles said. “The process would be very stressful for the animals.”

For Central, though, the question is also one of financial difficulty. In order to keep the chimpanzees, the university would need to bring in at least three new animals, which would require renovating the building where the chimpanzees are housed. The project has been projected to cost about $1.9 million.

Reveles said that bringing in chimpanzees without renovating the building would be unsafe, because of the territorial nature of chimpanzees.

“New chimpanzees would need to be separated at first,” Reveles said. “It’s a very slow integration process.” She added the group was not asking for a physical expansion of the building, and that it was only the renovation that was necessary for the new chimpanzees.

Steve Wagner, associate professor of biological sciences and the interim director of primate behavior and ecology, said he believes the loss of the CHCI program would negatively impact the Primate Behavior program.

“Students are generally attracted to Central by learning about CHCI,” Wagner said.

Some students in Wagner’s program have worked directly with the chimps at CHCI. Although Wagner’s students work mainly with macaques in China, or wild monkeys in South America, he said they have benefited from their exposure to chimpanzees in captivity at CHCI.

“It’s a real partnership,” Wagner said, “and CHCI students, they can learn about captive primates, and care at CHCI, and then they can also explore other opportunities in the primate program, to study primates in the wild.”

Wagner said the inter-disciplinary nature of the primate behavior program means it affects students in other departments including biology and anthropology.

According to Mary Lee Jensvold, the director of CHCI, the question of what course the university should take is largely an ethical one.

“This is about the fate of two individuals,” Jensvold said.

Jensvold worries Central is focusing on the financial aspects of the problem and possibly overlooking the ethical aspect of the question. Jensvold believes Central has a responsibilty to the chimpanzees, since they cannot speak for themselves.

“Tatu and Loulis have been on this campus since 1980,” Jensvold said. “And then at the end of their life, to go ‘Oh well, we can’t afford to have you here anymore,’ what does that teach people? What does that teach students?”

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