Ch-499*: One of a kind
Instead of a proud figure, [Jerom] was lean and gaunt, his hair dull, his skin pale, his eyes sunken from wasting and bright with fear and fever. He suffered in almost every way a caged chimpanzee can suffer, and then he died.
(Born: Feb 23, 1982; Died: Feb 13, 1996)
Jerom was taken from his mother when he was an infant and experimentally infected with HIV at the age of two. Jerom lived until only the young age of 14 at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center (Yerkes), a federally funded laboratory in Atlanta, Georgia.
Jerom lived in the Chimpanzee Infectious Disease (CID) building which is a separate facility from other research and housing buildings on Yerkes main campus. Rachel Weiss, who was Jerom’s caregiver towards the end of his life, described the CID at the time as a big box with windowless cement walls and no outdoor access. Reality for the chimpanzees was a dark, gray space with damp floors and walls where a limited number of humans would pass through garbed in jumpsuits, booties, face shields, and gloves. (Since this time a few minor changes have been made to this facility. Sadly, some HIV-infected chimpanzees remain in this building today).
Rachel described Jerom as lanky, shy and ticklish. She said that he would smile, “and when he laughed he bit down on one of his knuckles…” (p. 11)
There are no known pictures available of Jerom, at least not to the public. Nevertheless, he will never be forgotten.
Jerom was one of a kind—not only was he the youngest chimpanzee ever infected with HIV (at 2 years, 8 months) at Yerkes National Primate Research Center (Yerkes), but he is also the only chimpanzee to die from an AIDS-related illness.
Jerom was born, and lived, and died in a laboratory. We know something about Jerom’s life today thanks to Rachel Weiss, Jerom’s caregiver at Yerkes in his final months. Rachel has told some of Jerom’s story, and in doing so, has kept his memory alive.1
Rachel was with Jerom on his last day—February 13, 1996—when he was knocked down one final time before being euthanized. Rachel kissed Jerom goodbye, and watched as he was taken to the necropsy room on a gurney covered in white sheets, which by laboratory standards might be considered royal treatment.
By sharing his story, including the glimpses of Jerom’s final days described below, Rachel allows us to understand the suffering and isolation experienced by chimpanzees in labs, as well as the shameful waste of their lives in HIV research.
Beginning in 1984 and over the course of the next 10 years, Jerom was infected at Yerkes with three different types of HIV, all of which differ from the type that typically infects humans.
During his illness, Jerom was plagued by diarrhea and wasting, and his immune cells and platelet counts declined over the years. Rachel witnessed his physical and emotional deterioration in his final months, and described Jerom’s condition in September 1995:
He was so severely weakened by the wasting that he had a difficult time holding his head up. He would sit with his knees drawn up and held his chin in his hand: he had to manually turn his head in the direction he wished to face. At times he would hang his head and sob quietly; other times he would climb down from his bed board and curl up in a fetal position on the floor in front of me. He never let me touch him then, but I desperately wanted to go in and hold him.
Jerom’s suffering has done little to further AIDS research. According to Rachel, there was “no active experimental research being performed on Jerom. It seemed that his only duty was to wait while the disease progressed.” Jerom would receive no HIV treatments, experimental or otherwise, and instead had only to look forward to opportunistic infections, chronic isolation from his fellow chimpanzees, and knockdowns.
Jerom’s isolation: Buster and the mirror
In his final months, Rachel watched Jerom experience great frustration, which could have been a result of, among other things, the progression of his disease and his isolation from other chimpanzees. Jerom was deprived of visits with Buster, his chimpanzee friend and cage neighbor, because the two might fight.
On the day that Jerom was euthanized, Rachel held a large square mirror in between their cages so that, although they could not be together, Jerom and Buster could see themselves as well as each other. Rachel noted, “Both Buster and Jerom came to look at themselves, and stared at each other for a long time.”
Later that day, Jerom’s frustration and isolation would end when he was euthanized and freed from the research that ruined his life and did nothing to help the lives of humans suffering with AIDS.
Jerom’s legacy: sharp decline in HIV research using chimpanzees
After Jerom’s death, his blood was transfused into three other chimpanzees at Yerkes. However, his infected blood failed to induce any significant illness in any of them.
This and other HIV failures served as a wake-up call to researchers, and within a few years, the use of chimpanzees for HIV research sharply declined as existing protocols ended and few new ones were initiated. Today, although HIV research using chimpanzees continues, it has been reduced to a handful of studies—an admission of the “dead end” use of even this species with 96% shared genes with humans.**
No chimpanzee—including Jerom—has ever died of the same form of the disease we call AIDS.
Memorial letter, February 2008
Twelve years ago today I said goodbye to Jerom, a 14 year-old chimpanzee held at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He was put on a gurney, covered in a white sheet, and taken away. That day, his life was ended and mine changed forever.
In the years before his death, Jerom lived in a dark, damp, windowless, cinderblock building with 12 other chimpanzees. They had all been used in biomedical research on HIV/AIDS. As an infant, Jerom had been experimentally infected with several strains of HIV, and eventually developed the first documented chimpanzee case of full-blown AIDS. When I began caring for him, six months before his death, he was scared, lonely, and wasting away. I loved him and his building-mates fiercely.
Jerom died long ago, but his story is timeless. The ordeal he suffered is little different from the suffering endured by hundreds of chimpanzees and tens of thousands of monkeys in research labs today. Used in HIV, Hepatitis, toxicology, and other human disease and pharmaceutical research, these individuals suffer lives of confinement and deprivation. Researchers claim that their use as models for human conditions is a worthy endeavor; opponents say the science will always be flawed and is of little value. Personally, I have come to believe that such research can only be of poor quality: good science and chimpanzee well-being are simply mutually exclusive. But the utility of the science is not relevant. Only the ethics—precursor to the science—is relevant.
The humans who use beings like Jerom for researching human disease had to decide that the lives of nonhumans are valuable only in relation to their benefit to humans. Jerom showed me that all lives have intrinsic value. He mattered to himself, therefore he mattered to the world.
Were he alive, I might have visited him in sanctuary at Chimp Haven, as I visited his building-mates this spring. Of the 13, only Tika, Joye, Arctica, Jonah, and Marc survived the rigors of years of confinement and research. For the first time in their lives these individuals have access to each other as well as new friends, the outdoors, and lives free from research. Arctica in particular stuck me with the change in her demeanor. When I knew her at Yerkes she was aggressive, intelligent, head-strong, venomous. She took pleasure in terrorizing lab staff, but saddened us with her abnormal, confinement-created behaviors. But when I saw her at Chimp Haven, she seemed thrilled to see me after so many years. And she looked wonderful: relaxed, peaceful, happy. Never could I have foreseen such a change. And recently, the best news: chimpanzees at Chimp Haven are no longer threatened with a potential return to research—a recent amendment to the Chimp Act has seen to that.
Jerom’s memory is always in the forefront of my mind. It reminds me to be humble and grateful, and to take nothing from any other being that I would not give of myself. On this day especially, remember Jerom and the thousands like him who died and will die for the unattainable human dream of a pain-free world. Remember that, in this thing called life, we’re all in it together.
13 February 2008
 Information and excerpts on this page are from Rachel I. Weiss, Jerom, © 2001, 1997 unpublished work.
* Chimpanzees in laboratories are assigned a unique number beginning with “Ch.” Where it is known, NEAVS supplies this number in these stories.
** Based on released genome sequence of the chimpanzee. National Geographic News, 9/6/05. (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/08/0831_050831_chimp_genes.html)