As a teenager in London, Elizabeth Harper delivered letters to each member of Parliament to advocate for animal rights. As an adult in Washington, Elizabeth Kucinich, now married to Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, and representing the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, is operating under a different set of lobbying rules but with the same unbridled passion for animals and their protection.
She is now the leading advocate for the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act—a cause she adopted the moment she tried to squeeze her 6-foot frame inside a cage used to hold chimpanzees in medical research trials.
“I had to hold the bars like this,” Kucinich says, putting her fists by her shoulders and elbows by her side. The cage was 3 feet by 5 feet, smaller than the 5 feet by 5 feet required by the U.S. code, but it had been used by a prominent research facility. The Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest in Cle Elum, Wash., had the cage on exhibit for visitors like Kucinich to see how chimps were treated in their earlier lives.
The bill Kucinich is pushing would release all chimpanzees currently used as research subjects to sanctuaries, where the animals could live out their final days in an open, lush, and social environment. The cause at first seemed too lofty for a Congress with a laundry list of more-pressing domestic issues to deal with. But that changed when the Institute of Medicine released a report last month countering the idea that chimps provide the key to developing vaccines for human diseases.
According to the report, “recent advances in alternate research tools have rendered chimpanzees largely unnecessary as research subjects.” And a major reason boiled down to this: Chimps are so expensive that labs are not able to buy enough of them to make the sample size adequate for research.
The news was music to Kucinich’s ears. The bill had been stalled in a House subcommittee since last April, but suddenly it had new life. Kucinich, as director of public affairs with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, began rallying support. She now has 163 lawmakers on board, including sponsorship by Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., former zoology professor and health researcher, who held a joint press conference with Kucinich to show his support.
Winning the support of a fiscal conservative isn’t the only skill Kucinich has learned since making the transition from Parliament to Congress, where lobbying rules are less stringent. She’s attracted celebrity attention to her cause: actors Kristin Bauer of True Blood, Lea Michele of Glee, Pamela Anderson, Kevin Nealon, and James Franco have all shown their support for the legislation.
Franco, known for his eclectic interests, told Kucinich his compassion came from the time he spent with apes, not chimpanzees, on the movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes and his little-known self-directed 2005 film The Ape. Kucinich says the celebrity endorsements don’t always produce votes, but they help drive momentum for the cause.
Her early advocacy work in London eventually led Kucinich to Capitol Hill, where she lobbied for monetary reform. One meeting took her inside the office of Dennis Kucinich. He proposed the next time they met. She was 27 and he was 58—older than her parents, who were reluctant at first but eventually gave the marriage their blessing.
“This is about a meeting of souls,” Julia Massey, her mother, told The Plain Dealer of Cleveland upon the couple’s wedding in 2005.
The Kuciniches have said their common interests and passions trump their age difference. But Elizabeth Kucinich has had to make sure those interests don’t overlap too much, at least not overtly. When she lobbies for the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act, she must not use any of her husband’s pull or resources. She does not even use his office as a gathering space when giving interviews to the media.
Kucinich flew into Washington on a rainy weekend before the State of the Union address, barely missing her husband, who had flown back to his district in Ohio. As she sat preparing her notes for the day ahead, she noticed that her cat splayed out on the cushion beside her was taking up the amount of space given to most chimpanzees when kept in cages for research. The bill seems like common sense to her, but she knows very simply why it is slow to move. It is the same reason her cat would leave her side.
“Other shiny things,” Kucinich says.
This article appears in the February 2, 2012, edition of NJ Daily.