The biomedical agency’s 50 remaining research chimps will be allowed to “retire” and moved to a primate sanctuary.
Image via (cc) Flickr user AfrikaForce
This week it was announced that the National Institutes of Health will be ending its chimpanzee research programs, a move that has been met with applause from animal rights groups while raising eyebrows—and concerns—from some across the medical research community. The decision to retire all chimps owned by the NIH was disclosed in an email to institute administrators from director Francis Collins on November 16, reports Nature. Upon retirement, the research chimpanzees will be moved to the Chimp Haven sanctuary in Keithville, Louisiana, away from the pokes, prods, and doses of medical testing.
In addition to the 50 chimps being released from the NIH directly, Collins’ email also touched on plans to assist in the retirement of chimpanzees owned by other research organizations whose work is supported by the federal facility.
The announcement to end the NIH chimp research program comes as something of a capstone after several years in which the agency reduced its chimpanzee testing. In 2013 the NIH retired more than 300 research chimps, leaving behind 50 of the primates to be used for experimentation only in instances of extreme importance, such as medical emergencies, explains Nature. That move came after recommendations from the Institute of Medicine in 2011 that were adopted by the NIH.
Image via (cc) Flickr user marfis75
There are, however, those who oppose the NIH decision, citing the importance of chimpanzee research in the biomedical field as well as the risk of inadequate care for the retired apes once they’ve been relocated to Chimp Haven—legally the only sanctuary NIH chimps can move to, as it’s federally owned. As NBC reports, that facility has only 25 open slots for incoming NIH apes—coming from three sites in Texas and New Mexico—meaning the timetable for the retirement of the agency’s chimp population could take years to complete.
Still, for animal rights activists, the move is overwhelmingly seen as a positive one. Speaking with U.K. newspaper The Guardian, Humane Society of the United States president and CEO Wayne Pacelle contextualized the significance of NIH decision:
“This is a historic moment and major turning point for chimpanzees in laboratories—some who have been languishing in concrete housing for over 50 years It is crucial now to ensure that the release of hundreds of chimpanzees to sanctuary becomes a reality, and we look forward to working with NIH and the sanctuary community to make that happen.”
Just last month, activists with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals directly targeted NIH director Collins, mailing hundreds of letters to neighbors within a several-mile radius of Collins’ home address, urging them to ask him (“in person or by letter, phone, or email”) to modify the NIH’s animal experimentation methods. At the time, members of the medical research community decried the campaign as a “dangerous escalation” in tactics.
Upon hearing of the NIH plan to retire its remaining research chimpanzees, PETA hailed it as a “victory!”