The Death of a Chimp

This op-ed, which appeared this weekend in a Kentucky newspaper, references an article I wrote back in 2002 for Discover magazine, about the strange plight of lab chimps.

Simply put, the U.S. bred tons of chimps during the height of the AIDS epidemic, thinking medical labs would need an animal model on which to test potential treatments. But scientists discovered too late that when injected with the HIV virus, chimps don’t get AIDS the way humans do. That left lots of chimps looking for a place to live out the rest of their natural lives. Since they were infected with HIV and heaven knows what else, they couldn’t be returned to the wild. Either their home labs euthanized them, or they had to to be move to sanctuary facilities.

I just happened to visit one such sanctuary on the day a beloved chimp took sick and died. I went there thinking I was writing one type of story, and left with something completely different. The result won me an award from the Humane Society; Oliver Sacks picked the story for a spot in the Best American Science Writing anthology the following year. 

I still get emails from people from time to time saying how the piece moved them. In hindsight it’s weird to think that I actually struggled with how to write the piece. I was guided in my choices by the advice of a fine editor who asked me: “Why don’t you just tell the story you’ve been telling all of us since you got back?”

The story is included in my ebook of nonfiction pieces, The Scientist and the Sociopath. But you can read the chimp story for free right here.