Gorillas, Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Orangutans

“From the biological point of view, between two human beings there can be a difference of 0.5% in the DNA. Between a man and a chimpanzee this difference is only 1.23%. This similarity is proved, for instance, with the fact that chimpanzees can donate blood to humans, and vice-versa.”[1]

Captive great apes exhibit symptoms which, in humans, are associated with psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders and post traumatic stress disorder.[2] Brune and associates consider that the similarities between human and ape mentality are so great that they are vulnerable to psychosocial stress.

The similarities in social, cognitive and emotional functioning between humans and primates indicates that the exploitation of great apes in laboratories, circus, entertainment shows and zoos can be considered a kind of slavery, similar to how humans treated their own kind, who were considered to be inferior, more than one century ago.

The use of great apes for research is currently banned in the Belgium (2008) Netherlands (2002), New Zealand (2000), United Kingdom (1997), Sweden (2003), and Austria (2006).[3]

In 2015, the (U.S.) National Institutes of Health announced that it would retire all federally owned chimpanzees to sanctuaries. This announcement followed a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to classify all captive chimpanzees as “endangered,” effectively ending invasive experiments on chimpanzees.

So what exactly is the situation in Australia?

There are no recent records of research conducted on great apes in Australia, and whilst the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has strict guidelines on their use, it is not explicitly prohibited.

Concern was raised recently however, when changes were announced by the Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI) to the Victorian Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Regulations 2008.

Under the heading “New License Condition” it reads as follows:

From the 1st October (2014), the use of non-human hominids in scientific procedures in Victoria will need to be approved by the Minister for Agriculture and Food Security. Non-human hominids are defined as “a gorilla, bonobo, chimpanzee or orangutan”.

Scientific procedures and specified animal breeding licences will require the Minister to be satisfied that the proposed scientific procedure is:

  • in the best interests of that non-human hominid; or 
  • in the best interests of the genus to which the non-human hominid belongs, and that the benefits derived from the use of the non-human hominid are not outweighed by the likely harm to the non-human hominid; or
  • it is necessary to protect human health and the objective of the procedure cannot be achieved by any other scientific means.

Our enquiry was about the third condition which allows hominids to be used if considered necessary to protect human health.

This seemed to contradict the NHMRC’s policy which states:

Great apes may only be used for scientific purposes if the following conditions are met:

    • Resources, including staff and housing, are available to ensure high standards of care for the animals
    • The use would potentially benefit the individual animal and the species to which the animal belongs
    • The potential benefits of the scientific knowledge gained will outweigh harm to the animal

The use of the word “or” in the Victorian requirements indicates that not all conditions need to be met, however the NHMRC policy clearly states that the three conditions are inclusive.

Specifically, the second condition of the NHMRC disqualifies the use of great apes for human medicine, and therefore contradicts the new Victorian licensing condition.

We therefore sought clarification from both the DEPI and the NHMRC and we have been advised that the two sets of rules that NHMRC-funded institutions abide by are not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, the majority of Victorian licence holders do not receive NHMRC funding.

What this means essentially, is that Australian researchers CAN use great apes – gorillas, bonobos, chimpanzees and orangutans – for human medical research (if not being funded by the NHMRC) – so long as they convince the minister that it’s justified .

This remains in place for the revised Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Regulations 2019. It would therefore be prudent for Australia to implement a ban on the use of great apes in research, with the only exception being for non-interventional observation studies. Any variation in this exception allows for loopholes which could permit invasive zoological research on individuals.

[1] http://www.projetogap.org.br/en/mission-and-vision/

[2] M. Brune, U. Brune-Cohrs, W. McGrew, and S. Preuschoft. ‘Psychopathology in great apes: Concepts, treatment options and possible homologies to human psychiatric disorders’, Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, vol. 30, no. 8, 2006, pp. 1246-1259.

[3] Project R&R, ‘International bans’, http://www.releasechimps.org/laws/international-bans, (accessed 9 July 2014)


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