At San Antonio's Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, Marabel Vasquez is monkeying around—but that's her job. She is the chimpanzees' behavioral specialist at the private research facility. She visits with the chimps, provides environmental enrichment and assesses their social dynamics.
On this January morning, it's overcast and 38 degrees, but the chimps brave the cold. Many are outside in their enclosed play area and welcome Marabel with hoots.
Marabel responds almost sounding like she's a preschool teacher, and, except for the surgical mask she's wearing, she looks like one. These hairy students are bigger than her slight frame as she passes out boxes of raisins through the steel mesh of the Primadomes.
A Primadome is a large geodesic dome enclosure specially designed to house primates with lots of opportunities for climbing and resting in high places.
The chimps seem to compete for Marabel's attention, and they don't like radio reporters getting to close to her.
"That's Hercules, and he knows you're coming. And he's very jealous, and he doesn't like it when any male is around me, so he usually gets very upset," said Marabel in a matter of fact fashion. Then she addresses the male ape in her high-pitched, reassuring tones. "Hi, big boy! Who's my baby? Who's my baby? Oh, you're such a tough cookie!"
There are about 150 chimpanzees at Southwest Foundation, which is one of only a handful of facilities in the world that is allowed to conduct biomedical research with the great apes. Recently the foundation found itself in the news over a planned transfer of 168 chimps from the Alamogordo Primate Facility in New Mexico to San Antonio.
Animal rights groups protested the move, and the National Institutes of Health put the transfer on hold pending a review.
This turn of events is seen as a wake-up call by some scientists who use chimps in their research. They are concerned that animal rights groups like the New England Anti-Vivisection Society will convince Congress to ban all biomedical research on chimpanzees.
"The animal model, especially the chimpanzee, who has been falsely claimed to be such a perfect substitute for human beings because of our genetic similarity, has failed again and again and again to provide the kind of information, the kind of accuracy and the kind of breakthroughs that are necessary," said Theadora Capaldo, president of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society.
The group is dedicated to end all animal testing. She says using animals like chimps for medical research is no longer needed.
"But because of the bias, because of the prejudice, because of the vested interest in the status quo that chimpanzees were used more frequently when in the end it was actually the alternative method that led to the breakthrough,' she said.
But scientists like Robert E. Lanford, who works at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, says without the chimpanzees it would be much more difficult and risky to find new treatments for hepatitis C, a deadly disease that has infected 170 million people worldwide and has been identified as an impending major public health challenge for the United States.
"All the anti-virals for hepatitis C have been mostly tested in chimpanzees. Not all of them, actually two of the earliest drugs to go into trials where not tested in chimpanzees. One of them was immediately pulled from the FDA for cardiac toxicity problems. So that's the risk to people if there's not been suitable animal experimentation," said Lanford.
The chimpanzees used in the research have been infected with hepatitis C, but they do not get the same deadly symptoms that people have. The apes are given the experimental pharmaceutical treatment mixed in Kool-Aid to drink. Then the researchers periodically take blood samples to check the effectiveness of the treatment. Sometimes a biopsy of a chimp's liver is needed. The Southwest foundation's scientists say the liver sample is easily taken using a long needle puncturing the apes' side.
"I think it would be a mistake to assume that biomedical researchers—places like us and our employees—don't care about the welfare of animals. They do. We do," said Kenneth Trevett, President and CEO of the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research. He says there is plenty of independent oversight to make sure the chimpanzees are treated well.
"There is the federal oversight, and then at the local level there is an Animal Care and Use Committee that is extremely vigilant. The NIH also has an organization called the office of Laboratory Welfare. And then we also have unannounced periodic inspections from the U.S. Department of Agriculture," said Trevett.
The animal rights organization PETA says the debate should be about right and wrong. Cathy Guillearmo, vice president for laboratory investigations for PETA said even if there is benefit to modern medicine from animal experiments people are wrong to use the creatures.
"I'm not buying this line that, decades after decades, use of chimpanzees is essential and important. But let's say for a moment what they are saying is true. Why is it right for human beings to take and imprison these animals and use them simply because we're stronger? And simply because we think that our suffering is more important than theirs" asked Guillearmo.
Guillearmo says PETA's goal is to help pass a law banning chimpanzee—and all animal testing—in the United States.
Marabel Vasquez says she used to think a law like that would be a good thing, but that was before she saw for herself how the chimpanzees are being treated and the benefits to science that they provide.
"I can't speak for other biomedical research facilities, but I can speak for this one—that we do everything in our power to provide the best care for the animals."