This week a group of experts advised the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to permanently retire more than 300 federally-owned chimpanzees, but also recommended leaving 50 behind who could be made available for experiments.
The announcement coincides with the first nine of 110 retired chimps from the New Iberia Research Center arriving at Chimp Haven, a national sanctuary, this week with the rest expected to make their way there over the coming months. Last month the NIH announced it would move them all to a sanctuary, instead of sending 100 of them to the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio.
The move to retire the 110 left more than 300 NIH-owned chimps available for invasive research while the NIH’s Council of Councils Working Group decided on how many research chimps it would keep, in addition to evaluating research projects the NIH currently funds and developing strict rules for when they should be used.
The group was established to further debate the issue of using chimps in research after the Institute of Medicine (IOM) issued a report in 2011 concluding that most research on chimps was unethical and unnecessary in biomedical and behavioral research, which was completed at the request of the NIH and in response to a congressional inquiry.
The final report issued this week advised the NIH to permanently retire all but 50 of the agency’s chimps who are currently housed in facilities in Texas and New Mexico to a sanctuary, and that the NIH should begin planning for this “immediately.”
The report proposed standards for their social and physical welfare, including requirements that they live in groups of at least seven, each have a minimum of 1,000 square feet, room to climb, access to the outdoors in all weather and opportunities to forage for food, reports to the New York Times.
The report also recommended stopping six of nine current biomedical research projects that involve immunology and infectious agents, while an additional six ended. There were also 15 less invasive projects that were approved, or conditionally approved, which will need to pass a review before receiving additional funding.
Additionally, the report advised against breeding, and set standards for future experiments, calling for the establishment of an independent committee that would approve study proposals after they pass the NIH’s scientific review and experiments that are expected to be harmful must have a “very high” benefit to humans in order to be approved, according to Daniel Geschwind, co-chair of the working group and a geneticist at the School of Medicine at the University of California Los Angeles.
While the recommendations are good news, they are not final. NIH Director Francis Collins is expected to respond to them in March, after a 60-day public commend period.
“We are very pleased with the report. Of course, we’d want to see every single chimpanzee recommended to go to sanctuary, but this is a huge step in the right direction,” Kathleen Conlee of the Humane Society of the United States told NPR. “So now it’s time to roll our sleeves up and figure out how we are going to get all these animals to sanctuary and give them the lifetime of retirement that they so deserve.”
Conlee also said the HSUS will be urging Congress to reallocate money being spent on research contracts to Chimp Haven for the care of retired chimps.
Unfortunately, these recommendations will also not apply to privately-owned chimps, whose fates remain unclear. Animal advocacy organizations are still pushing to get the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act passed this year, which will help the ones left behind by phasing out testing for chimpanzees currently in U.S. labs, along with retiring all federally owned chimpanzees and ending transport and breeding programs for great apes intended for research.
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