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50 Remaining NIH Research Chimps Granted Their Freedom

nih chimpanzees

Story at-a-glance -

  • In 2013, plans were made to retire 400 of NIH’s approximately 450 chimps, some of which had been used in laboratory research for 50 years
  • Now NIH has announced the remaining 50 chimps will also be allowed to retire
  • Many of the original NIH-owned chimps are still waiting in research labs while decisions are made about where to house them

By Dr. Becker

Chimpanzees and humans share 99 percent of their DNA.1 Chimps are actually our closest living relative, and like us, live in social communities, make tools and can learn sign language.

If you tickle a chimp, he may very well laugh, and he'll likely laugh at other situations that would draw laughter from humans.

Chimps also face death and dying in much the same way as humans, holding vigil over chimps who are dying (including both touching and grooming them) and grieving once they are gone.

Knowing the similarities between us makes the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) recent decision to retire all of its research chimps that much sweeter. The move follows a 2011 declaration by the Institute of Medicine that invasive medical research on chimps could no longer be justified.

50 Remaining NIH Chimps to Be Retired

The U.S. is the only country that still owns chimpanzees for research purposes, but hopefully it will be moving to join the many countries around the world that have already stopped the practice.

In 2013, plans were made to retire 400 of NIH's approximately 450 chimps, some of which had been in used in laboratory research for 50 years. At that time, the remaining chimps were allowed to be kept for future research that met certain criteria, such as public-health emergencies.

As of November 2015, however, NIH director Francis Collins announced that the remaining 50 chimps would be retired to sanctuaries.

While proponents of animal research have expressed concern about taking this "resource" away, advances in alternate research tools have rendered chimpanzees essentially unnecessary as research subjects.

Collins noted that only one application to use chimps in research had been received by the NIH since 2013, and that was later withdrawn.

Further, in June 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) gave endangered-species protection to wild chimps, which put further restrictions on using the chimps for research.

According to Nature, "This prevents scientists from stressing chimps unless the FWS determines that the work would benefit wild chimpanzees."2

The decision of where to move the 50 chimps is raising more questions than answers currently, as Chimp Haven, the only federally accredited sanctuary, is nearly out of space.

However, what is known is that the NIH decision will prevent any more chimps from being taken from the wild for research, at least at NIH's hands. Peter Walsh, a disease ecologist at the University of Cambridge, UK, told Nature:3

"A lot of wild chimps died in order to capture infants for originally stocking NIH's own captive populations, and populations they have long supported financially."

The Fate of NIH-Supported Chimps Remains Unknown

While the NIH has retired all of the chimps they own (at least on paper), agency-supported chimps still remain in captivity (the NIH pays for their care but does not own them). The NIH has said they will develop a plan to phase out their support for such chimps. According to Nature:4

"The NIH's first priority, Collins writes, will be to transfer 20 NIH-owned chimps from the Southwest National Primate Research Center in San Antonio, Texas, to Chimp Haven, a government-funded sanctuary in Keithville, Louisiana. Next will be the 139 chimps at a facility in Bastrop, Texas, which is owned by the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

He told Nature that the NIH will also address the fate of 82 agency-supported chimps that are housed at the Southwest National Primate Research Center, although it has not made any decisions yet."

It should be noted, too, that while the NIH promised to retire most of their chimps in 2013, a CNN investigation found that only six chimps had actually left government research facilities as of February 2015.5

Many NIH Chimps Have Died While Waiting for 'Retirement'

Dozens of others had reportedly died while waiting to be released, never making it to Chimp Haven's acres of forest. Many of NIH's chimps have been infected (intentionally) with HIV or hepatitis.

Cathy Spraetz, director of Chimp Haven, told CNN in February that she's worried many of the chimps will die before getting to experience freedom:6

"A lot of these chimpanzees are elderly, and so they don't have a lot of time … Even giving them months to enjoy this [sanctuary forest] as opposed to being in a more confined environment is the only right thing to do.

… Retired means to sanctuary. Labs are lots of things, but they are certainly not sanctuaries, and so it's important that the chimps come here … There are lots of tears when we see chimps released into a very large corral or habitat for the first time … Just knowing here they had an opportunity that they've not had their entire life makes it all so worthwhile."

The delay was blamed, in part, on the selection process to determine which 50 chimps would be kept behind. Now the NIH has said that 300 chimps would be retired over the next two years or longer.7

In the wild, chimpanzee populations are declining. Millions of chimpanzees used to live and roam freely in Africa, but today there are only an estimated 170,000 to 300,000 chimps left in the area, making them an endangered species.

According to some estimates, the chimp population living in the Ivory Coast has decreased by 90 percent in the last two decades, and their numbers continue to dwindle due to habitat destruction, hunting, and disease.8