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Open the Labs and Set Them Free?

USC's Craig Stanford Believes That Chimpanzees Are as Intelligent as 2-Year-Old Children. If He's Right, Zoos and Research Laboratories Have a Lot of Explaining to Do.

June 02, 2002|DOUGLAS FOSTER

Adam Stanford teeters atop a log, studying Jerrard. They gaze at each other through a glass divider--a flaxen-haired 5-year-old boy and his 12-year-old counterpart--as if assessing a possible playmate. Adam is wearing a modish blue shirt, pressed khaki shorts and sneakers. Jerrard is wearing no clothes at all, because that's not required of chimpanzees living in the Mahale Mountain enclosure at the Los Angeles Zoo.

Jerrard turns, showing off his broad shoulders, lanky arms and a resplendent, hairy, heavily muscled back. Adam turns too, shaking his arms as if working out kinks or comparing physiques, aping the chimpanzee. "You know, we are an ape," he murmurs. Adam's father cracks up. "I didn't put him up to that," he says.

Craig Stanford, 44, is chair of the anthropology department at USC and an emerging star in a new generation of great ape field researchers. He regularly commutes from Los Angeles, where he teaches at USC and co-directs the university's Jane Goodall Research Center, to the rolling hills of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, where he's engaged in a long-term study of gorillas and chimpanzees.

It feels a bit surreal to stand outside this enclosure with Stanford. Mahale Mountain, after all, is the name of an actual wild chimpanzee study site in Tanzania. Next to the zoo's faux mountain is a faux Gombe, a kitsch representation of Jane Goodall's storied study site in the same country. A tent much like the one she lived in during her early field studies opens over a concrete walkway, and copies of her early notes are on display under glass. Stanford conducted research at the real Gombe, and he only heightens the dissonance by turning away from the captive chimpanzees to say they're quite unlike the wild creatures he's studied over the years. "They're just different animals," he says. "The chimpanzees I work with evolved in an African forest in response to pressures of an African forest."

The implication is that you can't learn what you need to know about chimpanzees by observing them in captive circumstances. This notion has not endeared Stanford to the nation's zookeepers and their in-house primatologists. But what really rankles some of his colleagues is Stanford's belief that captive apes are akin to young human children. "Keeping great apes in zoos is morally questionable, and in laboratories reprehensible," he writes in his latest book, "Significant Others." "The intellect of a chimpanzee is similar to that of a small child or a cognitively impaired adult."

In addition to the estimated 200,000 chimpanzees still alive in Africa, there are 1,700 or so chimps in zoos around the world and hundreds in primate research centers for use in everything from behavioral studies to biomedical research. Stanford is challenging not only the most invasive sort of medical research--say, injecting chimpanzees with viral strains and caging them in close quarters to see what happens--he's also taking aim at behavioral experiments in laboratory settings and even the practice of keeping apes in the country's best zoos, like this one.

Taking his invocation literally would mean shutting down most great ape research in this country. Monkeys still would be kept in captivity for HIV, malaria and tuberculosis research as well as studies on juvenile aggression. But the four kinds of primates that are most closely related to human beings from an evolutionary point of view--chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans--would be placed off limits, as they are in New Zealand. The debate over the ethics of "imprisoning" great apes has bubbled away among primate specialists for years, often beneath the surface. They've fussed with one another about whether likening apes to human children is accurate or fair, about whether brainpower should be the trump factor for figuring out which animals deserve special protection, and whether genetic relatedness to human beings should carry special weight in bioethical considerations.

"Look," says Stanford, gesturing at the group of chimpanzees gamboling near the enclosure's waterfall. "From a neurological point of view, these animals are the most complex creatures on earth, maybe in the universe, besides dolphins, whales and us. The only thing that separates them from 2-year-old children is that we're human, they're not. Eventually, you have to make a decision about where to draw the line."

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