Science

Federal government to transfer laboratory chimps to sanctuaries

Great apes once used in medical experiments and housed in medical labs to be retired to chimp sanctuaries

In this three picture combo, a baby chimp shows a variety of expressions as it sits in its mother's arms at Chimp Haven in Keithville, La., Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013.
Gerald Herbert/AP

Hundreds of chimpanzees held in captivity for medical experiments got a reprieve from Congress on Wednesday when the Senate passed legislation to fund the transfer of almost all of the apes owned by the federal government to chimpanzee sanctuaries.

President Barack Obama is expected to sign into law The Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection Act, which allots funding for sanctuaries to house chimpanzees owned by the National Institutes of Health. The legislation comes after experts found in 2011 that the chimpanzees in research facilities were rarely used by scientists and simply languish in laboratories. 

“Americans have benefitted greatly from the chimpanzees’ service to biomedical research, but new scientific methods and technologies have rendered their use in research largely unnecessary,” NIH Director Francis S. Collins said in June when the organization announced plans for the chimps' release.

Over the next five years, 310 chimps will leave NIH-funded facilities for federally funded sanctuaries like Chimp Haven in Louisiana, which opened in 2005 so retired research chimpanzees can live in a place more reminiscent of their natural environment. Fifty will remain with the NIH.

Funding will go to expand and keep open Chimp Haven and other sanctuaries to accommodate the new chimps. There, the primates will interact in a group, as they would in the wild, cared for by ape specialists.

“Chimp Haven extends its gratitude to both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate for ensuring the continued care of government-owned chimpanzees, most of who have spent decades in research laboratories,” said Cathy Willis Spraetz, president of Chimp Haven.

The organization said its funding, $30 million originally doled out in 2000 to cover construction and operating costs, was on the verge of running out this week as the CHIMP Act passed through congress with bipartisan support. It was added to a bill related to preventing the deaths of premature babies.

Kathleen Conlee, vice president of animal research issues for the Humane Society, told Al Jazeera that lives spent in labs cause great stress to the chimpanzees, leaving many with mental as well as physical scars.

“Lack of social housing can have significant impact on their psychology," said Conlee. "There have been a number of papers that showing how chimps that have been used in research suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.”

A Humane Society undercover investigation cited by ABC News in 2009 revealed the use of “sedation guns” on chimpanzees at the University of Louisiana in New Iberia, La., where 59 chimps are still held. University officials told ABC the university had a strict “no tolerance policy” regarding animal abuse.

The New Iberia chimpanzees, owned by NIH, are slated to go to Chimp Haven in early 2014, Conlee said. NIH, which helps fund the facility, announced the move at the end of last year.

But the era of regularly experimenting on chimps may be coming to an end, at least as far as the NIH is concerned.

A 2011 study by the Institute of Medicine found a “decreasing scientific need for chimpanzee studies due to the emergence of non-chimpanzee models and technologies.” Only in dire scenarios, where there are no other alternatives, should scientists experiment on chimpanzees, the study said.

After the Institute of Medicine study, NIH reportedly scaled back its use of chimpanzees in research. Removal or restrictions on the use of research chimps has had detractors, with 171 scientists writing a letter in April 2010 to NIH director Collins, denouncing plans for a ban and saying chimpanzee research had led to important discoveries about human health.

Conlee said the U.S. government’s chimpanzees are descended from apes captured during the 1950s for space flight tests by the U.S. Air Force.

Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, NIH-funded labs bred the animals for AIDS and hepatitis research, but found them of limited use because they didn’t respond to the infections as humans did, according to Conlee.

In addition to the ethical issues and practical concerns, financial costs played a role in the decision to release the chimpanzees.

According to the NIH, housing a chimpanzee at a research facility costs as much as $80 dollars a day, while letting them live at a sanctuary costs about $40.

The chimpanzees at Chimp Haven will still remain the property of the U.S. government, but Conlee said since a quarter of Chimp Haven's funding comes from private sources, federal funds are only shouldering 75 percent of the funding burden instead of the 100 percent they do now.

Transferring NIH-owned chimpanzees from the four different facilities where they now live could take as long as five years, Conlee added. By then, their numbers will likely dwindle as some older apes die. 

"There's an urgency to start sending them to a sanctuary as soon as possible," she said.

Al Jazeera

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