Research

Research

Lab Eyewitness: Jen
Brodie Chimpanzee
Jen’s friend Brodie
Photo: © J. Feuerstein
 
When I started working at Yerkes, I didn’t think biomedical research on other species was wrong. It took some time, probably because I didn’t see baby monkeys used in eye experiments, or chimps used in HIV experiments, everyday. But eventually I came to see the suffering of my friends—and the chimps in particular were my friends—and realized that it was wrong, plain and simple.
Jesse had to be “knocked down,” that is, darted with ketamine, every month for the next six months to have blood drawn. It was a horrible experience for Jesse, as it is for all chimps. When a chimp is darted, they are separated from their companions and do not get fed in the morning, so they know what is coming. When the technician arrives to dart, many chimpanzees, Jesse included, become terrified and run screaming around the cage in a vain attempt to avoid being darted. It may take several darts before one hits its target, but in the end, the chimp always loses.
—Jen Feuerstein

My friends—Atlanta, Jesse, and Abby

I worked at Yerkes National Primate Research Center (Yerkes) from November 1997 to February 2003 as an “animal care technician,” meaning I was responsible for the day-to-day care of chimpanzees and monkeys. I worked at the Field Station, which was about 30 miles outside of Atlanta, where most of the chimps and monkeys lived in large social groups.

The research at the Field Station was largely behavioral, meaning I didn’t see most of the hard-core biomedical research that took place at Yerkes. Most of that happened at the Main Center, located on Emory University’s campus in Atlanta. But the Field Station was affected by the biomedical research. Monkeys were frequently taken from us, and chimpanzees occasionally. Over the five years I worked there, grant money for purely behavioral research started to dry up. Much of the research at the Field Station became more invasive, especially with the monkeys.

I also visited the Main Center on several occasions and saw how the chimps and monkeys had to live. Almost all of the monkeys—hundreds of them—lived alone in small cages. The chimps lived in a barren row of concrete and steel indoor-outdoor cages with no bedding and few toys. Their cages were cleaned by simply hosing waste to the drain from the outside of the cage twice a day, while the chimps were still in the cage. This left the cages wet most of the time. The animal care technicians would not give the chimps anything with which to nest, because it made it harder to clean. It was a far cry from the Field Station, where we scrubbed the cages clean every day with soap, and because of the efforts of a few caring individuals, the chimps got some form of bedding, toys, and food treats for enrichment. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing, which is pretty much what the chimps at the Main Center got.

When I started working at Yerkes, I didn’t think biomedical research on other species was wrong. It took some time, probably because I didn’t see baby monkeys used in eye experiments, or chimps used in HIV experiments, everyday. But eventually I came to see the suffering of my friends—and the chimps in particular were my friends—and realized that it was wrong, plain and simple.

All of the chimps have a story, and all of them touched me in some way, so it is not easy to pick out just one. After much contemplation, I chose three stories to share on Atlanta, Jesse, and Abby.

Atlanta

Atlanta was the first chimpanzee born in the city of Atlanta, Georgia. I know nothing of her life before I met her at the Field Station. When I met her, she was one of the oldest females in a social group of chimps that had been established some years before. This chimpanzee group lived in an indoor-outdoor enclosure about 1/3 acres in size. Atlanta was extremely heavy, almost morbidly obese. (In my later years at Yerkes, Atlanta’s weight was often blamed on the enrichment—that is, food treats such as fresh produce, sunflower seeds, small cups of frozen juice, and so on—that the other care technicians and I gave to the chimps. However, I railed against these assertions, since Atlanta was already overweight when I met her—and there was no enrichment given at that time.) After her weight caused her to turn blue during a routine physical, we instituted an individual feeding program and Atlanta was put on a diet. Her weight dropped, although she was never slender.

A couple of years later, Atlanta’s age and weight caught up with her. She was unable to walk, and needed medical treatment. Atlanta was taken away to the Main Center, despite the fact that the Field Station had accommodations for Atlanta in her home building that would permit aggressive medical treatment, but allow her to stay in a familiar setting with vocal contact with her chimpanzee group. At the Main Center, she was diagnosed with severe osteoarthritis and put on medication. She lived in what is called a “met cage” at Yerkes, a 5′x5′x7′ cage with a back that squeezes forward, forcing the chimp to the front of the cage for injections. This is exactly the type of cage we had at the Field Station in her home building. However, no thought was given to her emotional needs. No one thought that perhaps she would be happier or more comfortable if she knew her friends and family were nearby. This lack of concern for the whole chimpanzee, mind and body, was something I encountered many times at Yerkes.

I visited Atlanta at the Main Center at Yerkes. I wasn’t actually allowed to do this, but I had a sympathetic coworker at the Main Center who brought me to see her after hours.

Atlanta was a shadow of her former self, both physically and mentally. They may have had her on an extreme diet, or perhaps stress or depression affected her, because she had lost a lot of weight in a short time, and her skin hung from her in folds. Her eyes, which always had a spark in them, seemed dull and sad to me. What touched me most was that she was happy to see me. She desperately wanted to groom, her favorite activity with her chimpanzee family. So we groomed each other.

Atlanta had a particular fondness for grooming eyes, and she quite clearly indicated she wanted to groom mine. I was taking a chance doing this, but I decided to trust her, to give her this one thing she was asking of me. I pressed my face against the bars of her cage, and Atlanta, who could have gouged my eyes out in an instant, ever so gently brushed her fingers against my lashes and inspected the corners of my eyes. When she was satisfied, she asked me to groom her eyes, which I did, although I doubt with the same skill as another chimp.

When it came time to go, I hated leaving her all alone in that desolate room, sleeping in that metal cage that had absolutely nothing in it, no bedding, nothing soft for her arthritic body. If she was so happy to see me, how much must she have longed for her son Rhett, and the rest of her chimp family and friends?

I never saw Atlanta again. One afternoon, not long after our visit, she was found dead in her cage. There was no apparent cause of death. Atlanta released herself from her cage the only way she could. Her chimp family never got to say goodbye. All they know is that we took her, and never brought her back. To this day I wonder if she would have died if she had been in her home building, and could hear the voices of her family. Perhaps that would have given her hope. Perhaps not. We’ll never know.

Jesse

There was not a great deal of biomedical research on chimps going on when I was at Yerkes, but it was not completely obsolete. Jesse was one of the chimps I knew who was assigned to a study, and I saw the experience change her. Jesse lived in a small social group with four other chimps in a row of indoor-outdoor cages of steel and concrete, but it always seemed to me that Jesse identified more with humans, and couldn’t understand why we were making her live with other chimps. She was very sweet and outgoing, and loved to play. She wasn’t fat, but had a bit of a belly on her, and overall was robust and reasonably happy given her less-than-ideal living situation.

One day, Jesse and one of her companions, Buffy, were taken to the Main Center for a study. The nature of the study was unclear—all we knew for sure was that it was a vaccine study. She had to live alone in one of the met cages, but I don’t know what her exact experience was there.

After a month, she and Buffy returned to the Field Station, but all was not over. Jesse had to be “knocked down,” that is, darted with ketamine, every month for the next six months to have blood drawn. It was a horrible experience for Jesse, as it is for all chimps. When a chimp is darted, they are separated from their companions and do not get fed in the morning, so they know what is coming. When the technician arrives to dart, many chimps, Jesse included, become terrified and run screaming around the cage in a vain attempt to avoid being darted. It may take several darts before one hits its target, but in the end, the chimp always loses.

Over the next several months, Jesse changed. She became thin and sullen. She wasn’t the sweet, silly, playful chimp we once knew. It was heartbreaking to watch, and there was no doubt in my mind of the cause. The stress of the research was too much for her. Worse, the humans she used to play with, indeed identified with, had betrayed her.

The study eventually ended, and Jesse’s weight and demeanor improved, but she was never really the same ever again. A couple of years later, she developed liver problems and a bleeding disorder. Was it caused by the experiment? We’ll never know for sure. After I left Yerkes, her health got worse, and the head vet decided that Jesse should be euthanized. I hesitate to use that word, because it implies caring and compassion, a desire to end someone’s suffering. No one could put Jesse through the suffering she went through and be caring and compassionate.

Abby

September 11, 2001, is of course significant for all Americans because of the horrible terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. But that date is significant to me for another reason as well. It was the day that a six-year old girl named Abby was taken from her mother for a research study. Abby had been raised by her mother, Barbara, and had never been away from her, and had never lived anywhere but the rows of indoor-outdoor cages in which she had grown up.

We—her caregivers—knew that Abby was to be taken, and the thought of it made me heartsick. I didn’t want anything to do with it. I couldn’t be the one to separate her from her mother. I was late for work that day, and was assigned to take care of monkeys. I felt for the caregivers who had the horrible task of separating mother and child, but I was relieved that I didn’t have to be a part of it.

Then the terrorist attacks happened. A fellow coworker heard the news on the radio, and came to tell me. I contacted one of our supervisors and suggested that the rest of the staff be told about what was happening. She said I could alert everyone so I began calling various buildings to share the horrible news. One of my coworkers said something that surprised me, but spoke volumes about how the research affected not only the chimps but also the staff. When I told this person of the planes being deliberately flown into the World Trade Center, the reply was, “I was just thinking about how anyone could do this to Barbara and Abby. Now I have my answer.” I’m sure people will think it’s inappropriate or outrageous to compare terrorists to biomedical researchers. But my coworker had a point. There is a shared trait—the lack of caring and compassion for others, the lack of concern for, or blindness to, suffering inflicted for a cause, whether the cause is God or Science.

The events of 9/11 stopped many aspects of life that day. Planes no longer flew, some businesses and government agencies closed temporarily. Most of us were shocked, grieving, glued to the television. But it didn’t stop the researchers at Yerkes from taking Abby from her mother.

I was finishing up my work with the monkeys that morning with fear and sorrow in my heart, when I saw the van carrying Abby head out of the gate. Atlanta is a major city, home of CNN and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. There was still uncertainty about other planes possibly still in the air, hijacked and heading for who-knows-where. The CDC, only minutes away from Yerkes’ Main Center, had been evacuated. Despite the threat and uncertainty, Abby was still driven into the city, away from her mother and everything she knew. She lived for a month or so in a met cage, and had a piece of her liver surgically removed. I don’t know why.

After Abby’s study ended, she was thankfully returned to her mother and as far as I know is still with her today. She had a scar running down her belly from her surgery, but to my relief was the same active, funny girl I had always known. But what was the point? What was gained from the fear she must have felt, the pain and suffering she endured, the sadness her mother must have felt?

Conclusion

I haven’t heard of any miracle cures or new vaccines that came out of Abby or Jesse’s studies. What is Atlanta’s legacy? She was a chimp who lived behind bars, unable to live the life chimps should live—free in the forest, able to make their own choices, and able to live and die with their families. Even if there were something gleaned from the research, would it have been worth it? Any knowledge gained from cruel and torturous experiments on humans, such as the Tuskegee experiments, or Nazi testing on Jews, isn’t worth it.

Chimpanzees suffer no less, I promise you.
—Jen Feuerstein

Jen Feuerstein
Former Primate Caregiver at Yerkes

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