The National Institutes of Health vowed to move its research chimps from labs, but only 7 got safe haven in 2015. Some chimpanzees have died waiting.
Nearly three years after the National Institutes of Health announced that hundreds of chimpanzees held for invasive medical experiments would be retired to a sanctuary, relatively few have been so lucky. Only seven made the trip in all of 2015.
The controversial delay has kept the primates, which were previously subjected to tests and deliberately infected with diseases such as hepatitis, captive in Texas and New Mexico laboratories. Some chimps have grown elderly and died there, in pens averaging 25 square feet.
NIH Director Francis Collins vowed in June 2013 that about 350 chimpanzees at the labs would be retired to Chimp Haven near Shreveport, La. Last November, he went even further, announcing that a last remaining colony of 50 research primates would be retired to the same sanctuary because “there is no justification” for continuing to hold them.
NIH spokeswoman Renate Myles said in February that seven chimpanzees were sent to Chimp Haven from Texas last April and that 20 more are expected to follow “in coming months.” But those seven are a mystery to the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, which certifies the health of animals that arrive in the state. An administrator noted in a letter last month that the department had no record of any chimpanzee entering Louisiana last year.
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The letter followed a state Freedom of Information request from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which this week shared the response with The Washington Post.
“Frankly we were shocked to see that not a single NIH chimp was retired in all of 2015,” said Justin Goodman, director of laboratory investigations for the nonprofit animal-rights organization. “One thing we’ve been particularly worried about is that the labs are fighting tooth and nail to keep chimpanzees.”
Chimpanzees, both captive and in the wild, were designated as an endangered species deserving federal protection by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2013. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, fewer than 300,000 remain in the wild as humans invade their African habitats. Collins retired NIH’s chimps shortly after the Fish and Wildlife action.
Two House Democrats, California Reps. Samuel Farr and Lucille Roybal-Allard, are among those who have complained about the NIH’s timeline for relocating research chimps. In a November letter to Collins, the lawmakers expressed concern “that there has been little progress to send chimpanzees to sanctuaries,” noting that at least 24 had died awaiting transport. “We want to make sure that for the sake of taxpayers and these much-abused chimpanzees, these delays are overcome immediately,” the pair wrote.
But it is an act of Congress that’s slowing the transfers, NIH workers and activists say. When lawmakers approved the Chimp Act of 200o, which designated Chimp Haven as a federal sanctuary and provided millions of dollars to NIH to care for retired chimps, they stipulated that no funds could be used to expand the facility. Now there’s room for only 50 primates with about 300 waiting for entry. At least 24 have died in the process.
Myles said 74 chimpanzees have been sent to Chimp Haven since the director’s 2013 announcement, and NIH wanted to send many more. It wasn’t immediately clear if they were part of the population that Collins referred to at that time or part of an entirely different group of about 100 chimps that NIH retired in 2012. Myles did not provide specifics on where they had been held.
Cathy Willis Spraetz, the sanctuary’s president and chief executive, said recently that she’s working with NIH to transport as many chimps as possible, but the effort is complicated. For health and safety reasons, no more than 10 animals are transported at a time.
As of October, Collins wrote in a response to Farr and Roybal-Allard, 308 NIH chimpanzees remained in three laboratories: the Alamogordo Primate Facility at the Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio, and the Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research in Bastrop, Texas.
This year’s first group is expected to travel in spring, perhaps in late March. Relocating all chimps eligible for retirement will likely take two years, said Cathy Willis Spraetz, the sanctuary’s president and chief executive.
Managers at those labs have openly disagreed with NIH’s decision that medical research using chimps was no longer necessary. Christian Abee, director of the Keeling Center, told the Texas Tribune in December that researchers were still “learning from chimpanzees through observation” and that the primates should stay where they are. According to the Tribune, Abee argued that transporting the chimps is itself traumatic.
Yet others, like PETA’s Goodman, contend that the labs’ motivation is money: NIH pays each facility $57 a day per animal, which can amount to millions of dollars per year. Spraetz called Abee’s travel concerns unfounded, saying a licensed veterinarian transports each group of chimps and checks their health, air quality and water supply en route, she said.
The bottom line, she said: Moving animals that have been subject to harsh experimentation for years is bound to be risky. They’re already traumatized, Spraetz said, and “they’re old.”