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Freed from enclosures, this 28-year-old chimp saw the sky for the first time

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The Current13:11The fate of primates used in medical research

It took Vanilla the chimpanzee a few moments to step outside of her enclosure, but when she did, she gazed toward the bright sky with wide eyes and a dropped jaw.

It was the 28-year-old chimpanzee’s first unobstructed view of the open sky. Previously, she had only seen it through openings with metal bars.

Her reaction transcended all language barriers, and a video of it went viral on social media.

“It’s such a beautiful moment, and I think people all around the world recognize that,” said Dan Mathews, director of the rescue organization Save the Chimps. 

WATCH: The moment Vanilla saw the sky for the first time

#TheMoment Vanilla the chimpanzee sees the sky for the first time

Vanilla the chimpanzee, born at New York University’s infamous LEMSIP laboratory, has lived in cages and enclosures for all 28 years of her life. That is, until she recently stepped into the sunshine at the Save the Chimps sanctuary and gazed in amazement at the open sky for the first time.

Vanilla had spent most of her life in enclosures. She was born in New York University’s Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP), a former biomedical research laboratory. According to Mathews, she lived in a 5 by 5 by 7-foot cage, which hung above the ground.

In 1995, she and 29 other chimps were sent to the Wildlife Waystation animal sanctuary in Sylmar, Calif.

Mathews said the refuge — which closed down in 2019 — was a step up from a laboratory setting, but it was still overcrowded and “she lived there for many, many years in [an] enclosure about the size of a garage with several other chimps.”

Vanilla was under the care of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. According to the Washington Post, the agency found her a permanent home with Save the Chimps this June.

“So when she came to us … last year, it took several months for her to even acclimate to being outside and to being with a group of chimpanzees on her island,” she said.

Vanilla is currently part of a group of 19 chimpanzees who live on one of the sanctuary’s several man-made islands, Airforce Island. The island is a no-contact zone that’s about three to five acres in size.

A portrait of a chimpanzee.
Born in a research laboratory, 28-year-old Vanilla came to Save the Chimps in 2022. She currently lives on one of the sanctuary’s islands with 18 other chimps. (Submitted by Dan Mathews)

“Vanilla is doing great,” Mathews told The Current guest host Robyn Bresnahan. “She spends most of her time on top of platforms surveying her new world.”

Primate testing

Chimpanzees are no longer used in Canada and the United States for animal research, but hundreds of other non-human primates, such as rhesus macaques and marmosets, are.

Laboratory animal veterinarian Dr. Andrew Winterborn says that every Canadian institution that uses animals in scientific research is required to report their numbers to the Canadian Council on Animal Care yearly. According to the Council, 6,818 non-human primates were used in research in Canada in 2021.

“That makes up around about 0.2 per cent of animals that are used in research,” said Winterborn, the Queen’s University’s director of Animal Care Services. 

“It should be pointed out that not all of those 6,800 would be in biomedical. That could be field studies done as well, where those animals would be included within that number,” he told Bresnahan.

Winterborn said the vast majority of non-human primates in Canada are used to help scientists understand brain function and disease, as well as vaccine development and treatment.

He said that non-human primates are still critical to vaccine development and treatment status, even if there are human trials.

“Unfortunately, there still is a requirement from a regulatory perspective that before a drug comes to market — and specifically vaccines come to market — you need to demonstrate the safety and toxicity associated with that vaccine,” he said.

“So prior to going into the human population, there needs to be a demonstration that that vaccine is going to be safe and that it’s going to be [effective].” And so unfortunately, at this point in time, that is still a central component of drug development.”

He admitted that sometimes, science does require those animals to undergo a procedure that could be painful. But, he said it’s extremely important to have qualified staff on board and the “gold standard” of pain medication available during those times.

A close look at the face of a light brown rhesus macaque monkey.
Although chimpanzees are no longer used for testing in Canada and the United States, other non-human primates like rhesus macaques are. (Brennan Linsley/Associated Press)

“So, you know, we take the utmost care to maximize the care and respect animal welfare when working with animals and research,” he said. 

But Mathews said it’s “a mistake” to think that animals must be infected with human diseases to find a cure — and points to HIV testing as an example. 

“[Chimpanzees] were a poor research model. They did not develop HIV the way humans do,” he said. “The disease that they get … [from] SIV, simian immunodeficiency, developed in a completely different way.”

Chimpanzees have evolved to control the pathogenicity of the virus, which does not typically develop into AIDS in the same way as in humans.

“So it turned out that we wasted a lot of money breeding chimpanzees, we created a lot of cruelty by keeping them in captivity, and it turns out that the things that we learned about HIV came from human clinical trials.”

Winterborn said he would love to see scientific research move away from animals — and suggested that artificial intelligence may play a long-term role in that. 

“I think we are still tens of years away, unfortunately, from that, when we simply don’t understand the biological processes, disease processes at this point in time,” he said.

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