'Saving Earth': How Jane Goodall convinced National Institutes of Health to end biomedical testing in chimps

At a dinner, Goodall explained to Francis S Collins, the director of the US National Institutes of Health, why she believed the NIH should stop conducting medical testing on chimpanzees

                            'Saving Earth': How Jane Goodall convinced National Institutes of Health to end biomedical testing in chimps
(Getty Images)

Planet Earth is in dire need of solutions. Astronomer Carl Sagan once said that we have a responsibility "to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known." Our campaign Saving Earth focuses on nature and wildlife conservation and this column will feature stories on the pressing needs of our planet and hopefulness of our fight.

Jane Goodall redefined mankind with her 60 plus years of research and dedication protecting wildlife and the environment. Her love for the animals and nature began at a very early age, and as a child, she had always dreamed to be in the African wild. At age 26, she left her privileged life behind in England and embarked on a journey of a lifetime to Gombe, Africa where she engaged in some ground-breaking research of chimpanzees, that earned her the nickname 'chimp lady'. Today, she is a globe-trotting conservationist, always smiling and radiating both optimism and approachability. One would typically find her dressed in khakis and untucked oxford shirt, as was her staple and go-to outfit when she treaded through the African wild and acquainted herself with the primates that went on to become her best friends. 

Two and a half decades after carving out her childhood dream into a full-time career, she made an abrupt shift from researcher to conservationist. In 1986, she helped organize a conference in Chicago for scientists based in six other parts of Africa that had been researching chimpanzees. The conference was an eye-opener for her when she was hit with the harsh reality that the chimpanzee population was dwindling as their habitat was threatened by human's encroaching upon their land. “Every single place where people were working, forests were disappearing,” she told the New York Times in an interview in 2015. “It was an absolute shock.” Furthermore, she learned of the injustices they suffered from being traded and trafficked by hunters. She considered it her responsibility to be a catalyst for change and answered her calling to become an activist for not only the primates but also for the earth.  

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One of the greatest achievements in her activism by far would be the time she transformed the attitude of science towards animals. In 2013, she learned that chimpanzees were being held in the National Institutes of Health's (NIH) laboratories for testing because scientists saw that they exhibited behavior uncannily similar to humans. Upon finding herself seated next to Francis S Collins, the director of the US National Institutes of Health at a dinner, she calmly explained to him why she believed the NIH should stop conducting medical testing on chimpanzees. This is a unique trait about her Goodall where, as an animal activist, she didn't resort to the argumentative methods of staging protests to bring about reform. Instead, she would use words to change their perspective and enable scientists to think differently while bringing consciousness to their conscience. 

Goodall's elucidation was well received by Collins, who actually looked into the issue instead of ignoring her words. After consulting with other institutions, he determined that there was very little information to be gained on behalf of human health by keeping some 360 chimpanzees in captivity. Chimpanzees were being bred in the NIH laboratories as biological models for HIV/AIDS research. Initial findings, stemming from research from the 1990s, suggested that chimps do contact HIV but they do not develop AIDS which made them less valuable for research. However, recent studies on the same phenomenon have said otherwise. In 2013, Collins announced that NIH would reduce the population of captive chimps in the laboratories to 50. They would be retired to the national chimpanzee sanctuary system and the 50 that were retained in the program had to be aged under 30. While it wasn't a complete end to the testing, it was a step forward in the right direction. 

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins (Getty Images)

In response to the NIH's decision, Goodall said in a statement posted on the Jane Goodall Institute news website, “I have long advocated for the end of invasive research on chimpanzees. Thus the Jane Goodall Institute welcomed the decision, made by Dr. Francis Collins of the National Institutes of Health in 2013, to retire all but 50 of federally owned chimpanzees held in medical research facilities." The NIH's decision also came after pressured demands from other activists like the Humane Society, People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. "And I wish to commend Dr. Collins for his wise leadership that has led to phasing out the chimpanzee program in a responsible way. But our work is not done. We must ensure that all ex-lab chimpanzees can be provided with sanctuaries where, for the rest of their lives, their physical, behavioral and social needs will be met," Goodall added. 

In 2015, the NIH ended finally ended the federal government's long and controversial history of using chimpanzees for biomedical trials. Collins announced that the 50 chimpanzees that were retained from 2013 for future research would be sent to sanctuaries where they would resettle in a more humane environment. “It is time to acknowledge that there is no further justification for the 50 chimpanzees to continue to be kept available for invasive biomedical research,” Collins said in e-mail acquired by The Washington Post. “Americans have benefited greatly from the chimpanzees’ service to biomedical research,” he said then, “but new scientific methods and technologies have rendered their use in research largely unnecessary.”

Chimpanzees feed behind a glass screen as primatologist Dr Jane Goodall looks on at Taronga Zoo July 14, 2006, in Sydney, Australia (Getty Images)

Goodall has lobbied the US Senate and State Department, negotiated with the World Bank as well as cajoled trade group and chief executives in her cause for wildlife and animal protection. If these various interactions are any indication, Goodall has a specific set of skills that she uses as a weapon in her mission to bring about change -- patience, perception, and purpose. She lives by three salient instruments to engender reformative changes and that is, "to never be confrontational, reach people's hearts to change their minds and not do something simply because you want the honor and glory of doing it." Goodall is passionate about the earth and it shows in her work. Not only that, but the majority of her 86 years that she's spent with the chimpanzees equipped her with an intuitive power of persuasion and communication with people. Her devotion to saving the earth is contagious and it ignites a spark in everyone that approaches her. 

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