How Many Former Research Chimps Will NIH Deem Unsuitable for Sanctuary?

Four years ago, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), announced that all of the chimpanzees the NIH “owns” or supports financially would be eligible for retirement to Chimp Haven, outside Shreveport, Louisiana—the sanctuary established by federal law. This announcement followed the agency’s decision to end its support of any further experimentation on chimps. But the operative word in the proclamation was “eligible.” 

As we feared, the NIH has begun announcing that many of the chimps are not eligible to be moved to sanctuary. Every one of the remaining forty-four chimps at the Alamogordo Primate Facility (APF) in New Mexico were identified as ineligible—a tragic precedent—particularly as the NIH has noted that chimps at other labs are likely to remain in place as well, although research won’t be done on them. 

“Many hundreds of privately owned chimps have moved to sanctuaries, in many different stages of life, without incident,” states Dr. Mary Lee Jensvold, primate communication scientist and associate director of the Fauna Foundation, as well as a board member of AWI and Friends of Washoe. “Nonetheless, the NIH has deemed that moving these chimps to a sanctuary—with diverse enrichment that includes grass and trees and an opportunity to build nests and socialize with other chimps, all while in the care of compassionate, well-trained caregivers and veterinarians—might kill them.” 

While nearly 300 chimps formerly used for experimentation have been moved to Chimp Haven, many others have not. One chimp at APF died recently, leaving 43. Additional chimps still in labs include 58 at the Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research (Bastrop, TX), and more than 70 at the Southwest National Primate Research Center (San Antonio, TX). 

Collins said that an “independent” panel of veterinarians (all of whom work for the NIH) evaluated these apes and determined that it would be too risky to move them. The evaluation wasn’t even done by visiting the chimps or the sanctuary (only “virtual” visits were conducted). Apparently, the panel members did not consider it worthwhile to see any of the chimps for themselves. They relied instead on information provided by APF—which will receive approximately $890,000 a year to care for the 43 chimps left there. If all these chimps were moved to the sanctuary, APF would go out of business.

The NIH panel published a short blurb on each of these chimps to explain why that individual was ineligible to move. Much of the text is the same for each one, with minor variations. Most are described as “geriatric.” Nearly all of the reports have an alarmist tone and claim a move “could trigger a fatal cardiac event.” Most of the 44 reports cite the “long standing socially bonded [group/pair] which, if disrupted, could negatively affect [his/her] psychological well-being.”

The age of the remaining chimps is from 29–57 years, so it is possible that many of these apes will live for another 10 to 20 years or even longer. All are in single-sex groups and many are in small groups, a far cry from an expert NIH panel’s recommendation of mixed sex groups comprised of at least seven animals. There is one group of just two chimps and several groups of just three. What will become of them over time when individuals in their group die? Ultimately, surviving group members will have to integrate with other chimps; thus, disrupting the social group is not avoided by keeping the chimps in place. 

It’s not surprising that there is an effort to deny so many chimps the opportunity to thrive in a bona fide sanctuary, as this comes from the same research industry that housed chimps for decades in small, barren cages. It also objected to the 1985 amendment of the Animal Welfare Act to mandate improvements for primates and then delayed implementation of the law for more than a decade. Yet now it claims to care about the best interests of these chimps.

Upon learning that all remaining chimps at APF were being left behind, Rana Smith, president and CEO of Chimp Haven, expressed disappointment, noting “the stellar track record Chimp Haven has with successfully transitioning hundreds of chimpanzees from research facilities to sanctuary retirement.” She added, “We’ve seen the health and behavior of many chimpanzees improve, including those who are geriatric, fragile and came to the sanctuary socially challenged.” 

Spending the remainder of their lives at Chimp Haven is the kindest gift we can give to these apes who were used for myriad experiments while living in harsh laboratory confinement. We urge the NIH to reconsider and give these animals an opportunity to experience life away from the traumatic environment of the laboratory. 

You can make a difference! 
Please write to NIH Director Collins and ask him to reconsider the decision to deny sanctuary to the 43 chimpanzees remaining at APF. His postal address is Dr. Francis Collins, Director, National Institutes of Health, 9000 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD 20892 and his email address is execsec1@od.nih.gov.

Following are points you may wish to make in your letter:

  1. Respectfully request that the NIH establish a truly independent panel to assess the future of retired chimps still held at the three research facilities. 
  2. The panel should have chimp experts, including a veterinarian with chimp sanctuary experience, a behaviorist with chimp experience, and an ethicist, and it should NOT include anyone from the NIH or affiliated with the three facilities that are paid to hold the animals.
  3. The review should include in-person assessments by each panelist of each chimp.
  4. Chimp Haven is a sanctuary to hundreds of chimps of various ages and health conditions. The animals deserve the opportunity to experience life away from the lab in this significantly larger, more enriched facility whose very purpose, as established by federal law, is to provide sanctuary. 
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