The U.S. government is finally ceasing its chimp program with the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH announced that they will send the last remaining research chimpanzees into retirement, as soon as the federal sanctuary has room for them.
In 2013, the government declared that the use of chimpanzees as test subjects was coming to an end.
The NIH will retire several hundred of the government-owned chimps that are still in research laboratories.
However, the NIH has kept 50 animals on standby, just in case they were needed for a public-health emergency or some other extreme situation. NIH director Francis Collins announced that the 50 NIH-owned animals will be sent to sanctuaries. The agency said they will also develop a plan for phasing out NIH backing for the remaining 82 chimps that are supported — but not owned — by the NIH.
In an interview with Nature, Collins said: “I think this is the natural next step of what has been a very thoughtful five-year process of trying to come to terms with the benefits and risks of trying to perform research with these very special animals. We reached a point where, in that five years, the need for research has essentially shrunk to zero.”
Collins wrote in a statement:
“Since June 2013, based on recommendations from the Council of Councils, NIH has phased out all previously active bio-medical research protocols using chimpanzees that did not meet the IOM principles and criteria, and no new bio-medical research projects have been approved.
“Another major development occurred last summer. On June 16, 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it has designated captive chimpanzees as endangered. Among other things, this designation requires that researchers apply for and obtain a permit to use captive chimpanzees in research if it could harm the animal. Up to this point, we are not aware of any permits that have been sought for this purpose.
“As a result of these numerous changes over the last few years, and the significantly reduced demand for chimpanzees in NIH-supported bio-medical research, it is clear that we’ve reached a tipping point. In accordance with NIH’s commitment in June 2013, I have reassessed the need to maintain chimpanzees for bio-medical research and decided that effective immediately, NIH will no longer maintain a colony of 50 chimpanzees for future research.
“All NIH-owned chimpanzees that reside outside of the Federal Sanctuary System operated by “Chimp Haven,” Keithville, Louisiana, are now eligible for retirement. Relocation of the chimpanzees to the Federal Sanctuary System will be conducted as space is available, and on a timescale that will allow for optimal transition of each individual chimpanzee with careful consideration of their welfare, including their health and social grouping.”
Cathy Willis Spraetz, “Chimp Haven” president and CEO, said, the first wave of 25 lab chimps could arrive as soon as December, and the facility would be ready for the other 25 by early 2016, according to National Geographic.
Anna Gibson, vice president at the Jane Goodall Institute, and a welfare and conservation non-profit, told National Geographic:
‘It closes a chapter on something that, years from now, we’ll look back on with a certain degree of horror.’
“In terms of conservation of an endangered species, it’s also a win,” Gibson continued. “No longer is there an incentive for someone to irresponsibly breed or attempt to capture chimpanzees for this [bio-medical research] purpose.”
According to a CNN investigation in February, they found that the agency had fallen woefully behind in retiring chimpanzees. Only 6 of the 310 research chimps promised retirement in June 2013 had been allowed to leave government research facilities. The agency had no timetable for when it would retire the rest of the animals.
For some people, this move may seem like a pioneering step. But in countries such as the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, Germany, Austria, and the United Kingdom, bans or incredibly severe restrictions on using apes for medical research have been in place since 1986.
Unsurprisingly, there are many advocates of animal research that are unhappy with the plan. “Given NIH’s primary mission to protect public health, it seems surprising,” says Frankie Trull, president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research in Washington, D.C.
Watch this video with Professor Lori Gruen talking about what they are using the last 1,000 research chimpanzees for, by Wesleyan:
Trull sees the NIH’s latest move as inconsistent with the logic that drove it to keep a group of reserve chimps. “I don’t understand the decision of ‘we’re going to take that resource away forever,'” she says.
Christian Abee, director at the MD Anderson’s Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research in Bastrop, says the NIH’s decision essentially ends chimpanzee research because its chimps are owned by the government. He claims the center only performs behavioral and observational research.
Watch this short video by Newsy Science that says the U.S. government promises to retire all research chimpanzees:
“If these chimpanzees are moved to ‘Chimp Haven,’ these facilities will be empty, while ‘Chimp Haven’ will have to build more facilities,” says Abee, who notes that the NIH helped to pay for the construction of the Bastrop center — and that MD Anderson has committed to spend US$500,000 on renovations to the center, in part to accommodate some of the NIH’s 50 reserve chimps, Nature writes.
“This decision demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the quality of care and the quality of life provided chimpanzees at the Keeling Center.”
Collins said the 2013 law passed by Congress requires NIH chimps to be moved to federal sanctuaries, which “Chimp Haven” is the only accredited one. “Bastrop does have many positives and I’m sympathetic with their question,” he says. “But right at the moment, we’re bound by the law.”
Justin Goodman, director of laboratory investigations at the U.S. organization of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), said: “Experimenting on chimpanzees is ethically, scientifically, and legally indefensible, and we are relieved and happy that NIH is fulfilling its promise to finally end this dark legacy. We will continue to encourage the same considerations be made for all primates in laboratories.”
The only down side to all this is in the last two sentences of Collins statement where he said: “These decisions are specific to chimpanzees. Research with other non-human primates will continue to be valued, supported, and conducted by the NIH.”