Retirement Can’t Come Fast Enough for These Research Chimps

The National Institutes of Health is considering whether or not chimps should be phased out of research programs.

Chimpanzees enjoying life on their own terms. (Guenter Guni/Getty)

Jan 28, 2013
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

What do the United States and the African nation of Gabon have in common? They are the only two countries in the world that still have chimpanzees in biomedical facilities. But that may finally change.

The National Institutes of Health Council of Councils is recommending that the 451 chimpanzees owned or supported by the NIH should be permanently retired from research and moved to sanctuaries.

This decision comes out of a long process that began in December 2010 when the NIH asked the Institute of Medicine (IOM), an independent advisory board associated with the National Academy of Sciences, to determine whether chimpanzees were still critical for biomedical research.

Reached for comment, Dr. Frans de Waal, a professor of psychology at Emory University and the Director of the Livnig Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, referred TakePart to his March 2012 article for PloS Biology. In, “Research Chimpanzees May Get a Break,” de Waal noted that the IOM found “a decreasing need for chimpanzee studies due to the emergence of non-chimpanzee models and technologies.”

After the IOM report was released, the Council of Councils was established to decide how the IOM recommendations should be implemented. Dr. K.C. Kent Lloyd, Associate Dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis, explained to TakePart that he was appointed to the NIH Council of Councils a little more than a year ago. “As a member of this Council, I was then asked to co-chair the Working Group charged to study, discuss, and finally draft this report.”

While the group recommended that the majority of chimps should be retired, they left open the possibility that a small colony of 50 chimps might be kept for new research, but only if if was first approved by an independent committee.

Further, Dr. Lloyd pointed out that if future experiments were to take place, the chimps should be allowed to live in social groups and the Council of Councils made “specific recommendations on the physical nature—space, climbing ability, ranging, natural materials, etc—of the environment, animal program management, and additional considerations.” The full report can be found here.

After the report was released, Kathleen Conlee, who is the vice president for animal research of the Humane Society of the United States, told The New York Times, “We are very pleased with these recommendations. Importantly, they did not recommend future breeding.”

Conlee told TakePart that, “There is a long history on the chimpanzee breeding issue. NIH had a policy against breeding of government-owned and government-supported chimpanzees, which became a permanent moratorium in 2007. But following our undercover investigation at New Iberia Research Center (a laboratory in Louisiana), we discovered that government-owned chimpanzees were being bred—not only in violation of NIH policy, but in violation of their grant agreements with NIH. We also found out that one of the NIH institutes (National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases) had a contract with NIRC that called for chimpanzee breeding and NIRC was using government-owned chimpanzees to fulfill this contract.”

“We pushed for an end to this contract, which is what happened. The government will no longer be funding chimpanzee research or housing at New Iberia. We are also pleased that eight offspring born in violation of the breeding moratorium are heading to Chimp Haven with their mothers,” said Conlee.

She added that, “It is clear from the Institute of Medicine report and the Working Group recommendations that chimpanzee research is on the decline and investment in breeding of chimpanzees, who can live 60 years and are very expensive, would be a misuse of federal funds. It is our hope that we have finally stopped a government-funded cycle of condemning new chimpanzees to decades of laboratory life.”

The Councils’ recommendations are open to public comment for 60 days before the NIH will decide if they will be put into effect.

Hopefully they will agree with Ms. Conlee and come to the same conclusion as Dr. de Waal, who has stated that, “My personal definition of non-invasive research on apes is simple: the sort of research I would not mind doing on human volunteers.”

Do you agree that the NIH’s chimpanzees should be permanently retired? Tell us in the COMMENTS below.

Show Comments ()

More on TakePart

High Schoolers Don't Know Where Food Comes From