Your Voice Is Needed for Chimpanzees in NIH Research

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Update

Success!  In November 2015, the National Institutes of Health announced that it will no longer support any biomedical research on chimpanzees. Further, all NIH-owned and NIH-supported chimpanzees who are not already in a sanctuary are eligible to be retired and relocated to Chimp Haven (a sanctuary located in Louisiana) as space becomes available for them.

Photo from Chimp Haven, Inc.Dear Humanitarian,

Lira was a chimpanzee bred for research by FDA. Beginning at age 21 months, she underwent six years of invasive experiments that included hundreds of liver biopsies and knockdowns/"bleeds." For almost three years she was housed alone. In one of multiple experiments—aimed at hepatitis c therapy—her liver was surgically exposed and then injected in 16–20 sites with hepatitis c construct. She became a chronic self-mutilator, chewing on her body hair, causing baldness. Despite FDA's warning that liver biopsies had caused muscle and liver damage, the biopsies continued for years. She died young, at 17.

These invasive experiments were conducted by FDA from 1995 through 2001. It is against the backdrop of tragic stories like Lira's that we now have an opportunity to significantly advance the welfare of chimpanzees in research.

In December 2011, a landmark Institute of Medicine (IOM) report titled Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research: Assessing the Necessity declared that "most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary." In response to this report, in January of this year, a Working Group (WG) of the Council of Councils—an advisory body to the National Institutes of Health (NIH)— issued its own report which expanded on the IOM report and included groundbreaking recommendations. The proposed changes are subject to a public comment period before NIH Director Francis Collins makes a final decision.

AWI believes that the WG Report contains watershed recommendations that likely would have prevented what Lira, and countless others, have endured for decades. These recommendations include:

  • Promotion (and not merely allowance) of the full range of natural chimpanzee behaviors in an "ethologically appropriate physical and social environment";
  • Provision of housing with at least 1,000 square feet per chimpanzee; vertical climbing space of at least 20 feet; materials so that chimpanzees can build nests every day; and social groups of at least seven;
  • Use by the Oversight Committee of a "burden/benefit" analysis to review research proposals; "high" burdens include prolonged separation from social groups, inoculation with infectious agent, and surgical procedures like biopsies;
  • An end to breeding of chimpanzees by NIH for any type of research;
  • Permanent retirement for the vast majority of NIH-owned chimpanzees into the CHIMP Act federal sanctuary system, with a reserve of 50 chimpanzees held available for research;


Despite these very positive developments, AWI does feel the recommendations could be strengthened in some areas:

  • The decision-making process is too ambiguous and could be deleterious to chimpanzees. AWI urges that all the recommendations contain clear-cut criteria (similar to the specified minimum square footage, etc.).
  • The largest single bloc of the Oversight Committee would constitute scientists (at least three, with a potential fourth), whereas just two would represent community interests. AWI proposes that the number representing community interests be at least doubled.
  • As Dr. Mary Lee Jensvold (an AWI board member and director of the Chimpanzee & Human Communication Institute) has pointed out, "acquiescence" and reliance on positive reinforcement techniques (PRT) are problematic. PRT does not work in all chimpanzees, and can be harmful. We join Dr. Jensvold in urging other positive aspects of interactions.
  • If NIH accepts the WG recommendations, it is unclear who will enforce the new standards. AWI urges that, like the Oversight Committee, enforcement be independent of NIH influence.