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What’s Next for the Government’s Chimpanzees?


The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has taken another big step toward bringing an end to the use of chimpanzees in vivisection experiments. The NIH’s Council of Councils has now approved a plan to retire most of the 451 government-“owned” chimpanzees still in research labs and send them to sanctuaries.

The chimps are not quite home and dry yet. There’s now a two-month public comment period before NIH director Francis Collins can give the final green light.

But the bigger question now is: Where will they go? Very simply, the NIH doesn’t have the money in its budget to pay for the retirement plan. Congress put a cap on how much the agency can spend on chimp sanctuaries when it passed the CHIMP Act in 2000, and NIH has already spent $29 million on creating sanctuary operations.

Very simply, the NIH doesn’t have the money in its budget to pay for the retirement plan.

The NIH floated a balloon at the end of last year to send some of the chimpanzees to the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, where they could still be in retirement but in a cheaper facility. That caused something of a furor in the animal protection community, however, since Texas Biomed is a highly secretive organization that has come under scrutiny by the major media, including PBS and NBC.

So NIH backed off that plan, and two sanctuaries – Chimp Haven in Louisiana and Save the Chimps in Florida – are both looking at how they can help fund the retirement themselves.

“We could not allow chimpanzees to be moved from one lab to another,” Jennifer Whitaker, vice president of Chimp Haven told WUSF News. “We want them permanently retired at our sanctuary. We’re in the process of raising those funds and we are feeling very encouraged, but we do still have a long ways to go.”

Aerial view of Chimp Haven

Fun and games at Save the Chimps

One person who may be able to help is Bob Barker. Last year, the former game show host called out “Come on down!” when he opened a new two-acre section of Chimp Haven for which he’d donated a total of $500,000. And just three weeks later, he sent $250,000 to Save the Chimps.

Another possibility is the Arcus Foundation, whose founder, Jon Stryker, is also one of the founders of Save the Chimps. The Arcus Foundation is dedicated to the cause of saving chimpanzees, not only in laboratories but also in their increasingly precarious natural habitats in Africa.

Save the Chimps was featured this week in a report on National Public Radio about how to pay for the NIH’s retirement plan.

The chimps living here — 266 of them — range in age from 6 years old to over 50. And as sanctuary Director Jen Feuerstein drives around in a golf cart, she recognizes each one.

“Hey, guys!” she says, pulling up to a small building that serves as the entrance to one island. “This is Luke on the left and Virgil on the right, and then the chimp walking up is Christopher.”

Later, she spots a chimp sitting up in a tree and says it’s Jaybee, a former research chimp who spent years alone in a small cage. She says he “had nothing natural, never went outside, never even saw the sun. So to see him in a tree, munching on leaves, just like a wild chimp would, is pretty amazing.”

Feuerstein says that taking care of one chimp costs around $15,000 a year, which is about the same as the NIH might pay to house a chimp in a research setting.

“Our job really is we’re housekeepers, we’re maids, we’re butlers, we’re servants,” Feuerstein says.

… The goal of a sanctuary is for chimps to live like wild chimps and bond with other chimps, Feuerstein says, so working here isn’t what people might expect. The sanctuary has a “no touch” policy, for example, so employees don’t go out on the islands and play with the chimps.

At least 50 of the government’s chimpanzees will not be retired. The NIH argues that chimpanzees are still essential to research in certain human diseases that may appear in years to come. Dr. John VandeBerg, Director of the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, has said

“I think of the chimpanzees in the same way that I think of a library. There are many books in the library that will never be used this year or next year … Many of them might never be used again. But we don’t know which ones will be needed tomorrow, next year or the year after.”

(No wonder the animal protection community was so horrified at the idea that the NIH might consider Texas Biomed as a retirement option!)

The United States is one of only two countries in the world that still use chimpanzees in medical research. (The other is Gabon.) And whatever the NIH does, there are also hundreds of chimpanzees who are “owned” by private laboratories and research companies.

Step by step, however, medical and scientific research on chimpanzees is on the way out. It will be years before it’s finally over. But one day we will surely look back on chimpanzee research as we now do on some of the infamous experiments that used to be conducted on unsuspecting humans.