What I Learned from Clint the Chimpanzee

Today, I opened the online magazine Aeon and found a new article on Clint the chimpanzee, entitled “The Pointing Ape” by a former colleague of mine, David Leavens.

Clint was a young male chimpanzee who lived in a cage at Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta for the 24 years of his short life in captivity. He died in 2004.

Clint’s contributions to science were enormous: As Leavens acknowledges, he was the first chimpanzee to have his genome sequenced, and he participated in years of studies that revealed not only how chimpanzees use pointing as a form of referential communication, but how they use computers to complete cognitive tasks, how they employ gestures, and how they communicate.

As a young faculty member at Emory University in the 1990s, I had the honor of working with Clint for many months on the very same computer studies described in the Aeon article. And, yes, he pointed to all kinds of things: from the grapes he wanted … to the juice bottle I often carried around … and to my shoes. He loved shoes.

But his impact on me far exceeded our working together as research subject and investigator. Indeed, Clint taught me a lot more about our own species than about his.

Clint’s “enclosure” consisted of an indoor/outdoor barren cement room with grating on the front. He could stick his fingers through the grating, but that was all. He could climb on a shelf and interact with the two female chimpanzees he shared his cage with. He could also hear the other chimpanzee inmates down the row of cells at the Yerkes Main Station where I saw “caretakers” hosing down and yelling at chimpanzees who “acted up” and where, in the cell next to Clint, an older female chimpanzee who had been in solitary confinement experiments early on in her life sat and punched the side of her head incessantly. Insanity in an insane asylum, where 46 chimpanzees still remain.

Yet Clint managed to live there and still be an incredibly charming, engaged and intelligent being with the people in the white coats on the other side of the bars of the cage.

I told myself that someday I would work to get him out of there and into a sanctuary. But a few years later, when I revisited Yerkes, I discovered that this would no longer be possible. When I walked into a colleague’s lab and opened a cupboard, there sat a large glass jar with a brain floating in fluid. And the label on the jar was “Clint.” Was this the Clint, I asked? The Clint I had known and loved? And yes, I learned that his heart had failed. My own heart stopped, too. I ran into the parking lot, got into my car and cried. And I never returned to Yerkes after that day.

To me, the real story of Clint is not about whether he could point to a grape or use a computer. It is about the tragedy of his life and the lives of all the other great apes who are confined to cells for the purposes of research. In the end, that’s the only story that really matters.

I’m so glad that great apes are gradually being moved from research labs to sanctuaries thanks to new U.S. policies on the use of great apes in research. It came too late for Clint. But we can continue to work in his name for the rights of other animals to be the authors of their own destiny: elephants in zoos, whales in entertainment parks, tigers at roadside attractions, “dancing” bears on leashes.

Yes, Clint taught us many things about his own species, but most of all he taught us about our own species and about how we behave toward his and toward so many others.

Update on Hercules and Leo Order to Show Cause

The Nonhuman Rights Project issued the following update this afternoon on its lawsuit regarding chimpanzees Hercules and Leo.

This afternoon Judge Barbara Jaffe amended yesterday’s ORDER TO SHOW CAUSE & WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS by striking out the words “& WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS” from the title of her Order.

This case is one of a trio of cases that the Nonhuman Rights Project has brought in an attempt to free chimpanzees imprisoned within the State of New York through an “Article 70–Habeas Corpus” proceeding. These cases are novel and this is the first time that an Order to Show Cause has issued. We are grateful for an opportunity to litigate the issue of the freedom of the chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, at the ordered May hearing.

The hearing is now scheduled for Wednesday, May 27 at 10:30 am at the New York County Supreme Court, 80 Centre St., New York, NY 10013. The hearing is open to the public.

Historic Win for Nonhuman Rights Project

In an unprecedented decision, Judge Barbara Jaffe of the Supreme Court of the State of New York has signed a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of two chimpanzee plaintiffs of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), Hercules and Leo.

These are the first two nonhuman beings to be considered legal persons under the common law.

Hercules and Leo, who have been used in research for years, are currently held at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and are “owned” by The New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana. The court case, which was originally dismissed in Brooklyn and then recently re-filed in Manhattan by the NhRP, means that the judge ruled there is sufficient cause for Stony Brook to appear before a court and explain why they are keeping Hercules and Leo captive.

The scientific evidence used by the NhRP for this and the other chimpanzee cases was compiled by The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy.

There is still a long way to go in the battle to free Hercules and Leo, the other two plaintiffs Kiko and Tommy, and all other chimpanzees being held against their will in captivity. But if the NhRP prevails, Hercules and Leo will probably be ordered to be sent to sanctuary at Save the Chimps, where they will lead lives that are as close as possible to their natural life in the wild. No longer will they be manipulated and constrained for human curiosity. Instead they will be free to make friends and the kinds of decisions all autonomous beings – all persons – want to make about their lives.

This decision has broken through a legal wall that has remained shut tight until now. It sets a precedent which can only facilitate the work of the NhRP and others who know that real cultural change will come when chimpanzee (and other nonhuman animal) rights are acknowledged and respected.

Yerkes Grudging in Its Response to Phase-Out of Chimpanzee Research

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is phasing out biomedical research with chimpanzees, requiring retirement to an approved sanctuary and raising standards for housing for those who do remain in research.

Yerkes National Primate Research Center, in Georgia, is one of eight NIH-funded national primate research centers, housing 78 chimpanzees. Short of finding sanctuary for most of these individuals, Yerkes may be required to make expensive modifications to existing housing for chimpanzees.

So, what is their response to this?

Yerkes spokesperson Lisa Newbern said in an email to the Atlanta Journal Constitution: “We are very concerned about what it will cost our center to adhere to the recommendations for the ethologically appropriate physical and social environments.” She complained that the new recommendations “would provide larger space per chimpanzee than many humans have in their own homes.”

The current environment for chimpanzees at Yerkes is far from conducive to their welfare or quality of life.

The grudging attitude in these statements belies any claims that Yerkes is concerned with chimpanzee welfare and shows that the facility’s “bottom line” is financial.

These statements are also very revealing in terms of how Yerkes views the animals it holds captive. Newbern’s concern about the cost of providing appropriate living space and social environments for chimpanzees reveals that the current environment for chimpanzees at Yerkes is inappropriate and far from conducive to their welfare or quality of life.

And in what can only be viewed as a resentful tone, Newbern suggests that chimpanzees should not have a larger living space than “many humans have in their own homes,” but neglects to take into account the obvious point that humans are able to leave their homes and freely go where they wish. This is a fundamental need of all chimpanzees and is denied to those held captive at research facilities such as Yerkes.

If Yerkes wants to create the public impression that they have any real concern about the animals at their facility, perhaps they need to do a better job of concealing their contempt for the animals in their “care”.