Could the end of U.S. government funding for invasive research on chimpanzees be in sight?
On December 18, the National Institute of Health (NIH) announced it will retire 113 research animals from the troubled New Iberia Research Center (NIRC) in Louisiana and move them to Chimp Haven, a federal funded animal sanctuary in Keithsville, Louisiana. Back in September, the NIH had said that it planned to retire 110 animals it owns at the NIRC but that only ten would be sent to Chimp Haven, as the forest 80-hectare sanctuary would be at or near full occupancy with ten or more animals.
The remaining chimpanzees were instead to be transferred to the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio, which is one of two centers in the U.S. that conducts NIH-funded research. The NIH said that those chimps would be “off-limits” to invasive research but activists continued to insist that all the animals be relocated to Chimp Haven, where research is limited to behavioral studies that are not invasive.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which had exposed animal mistreatment at the NIRC after releasing a video in 2009, kept the pressure on the NIH. It has gotten results with the NIH’s decision to send all the chimps to Chimp Haven. The HSUS has pledged to raise $500,000 for a $2.3 million construction project to enlarge the sanctuary for all 113 research animals; the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, an independent non-profit organization, will raise additional funds. It will be 12-15 months before all the chimpanzees are able to move to the sanctuary.
Citing an NIH-solicited report by the US Institute of Medicine (IOM), the NIH’s director, Francis Collins, said that “these animals have made important contributions to research to improve human health, but new technologies have reduced the need for their continued use in research.”
The new plan to move all 113 chimps from the NIRC is certainly “a ray of light for captive chimpanzees,” says Wayne Pacelle, president of the HSUS. In September, he had hailed the NIH’s decision to retire the animals as “a significant step forward in our goal toward ending invasive experiments on chimpanzees.”
But while the number of chimpanzees used in laboratories in the U.S. is definitely shrinking, there are still 115 chimpanzees at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute and 167 at the Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research in Bastrop, Texas. Both centers receive NIH funding; a working group is evaluating the report by the IOM about the “scientific necessity” of using chimpanzees in lab research that causes discomfort and fear.
Other government agencies have been reevaluating the funding of experiments using chimps. According to Nature, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — which had funded viral hepatitis studies in young female chimpanzees as recently as 2010 – has now told the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in a September letter that it no longer funds chimpanzee research.
The Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act of 2011, which calls for phasing out federally supported invasive research on chimpanzees and for retiring government-owned animals to sanctuaries, was introduced into Congress in 2011; a key Senate committee passed the act this past July. Privately-funded invasive research on chimps is still going on but the NIH’s decision is a significant step in ending the use of our closest animal relatives from painful, boring lives as research subjects.
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