On Jan. 22, the National Institutes of Health Council of Councils Working Group approved an NIH committee proposal to retire all but 50 chimpanzees from U.S. government testing and federally funded research. As a result, some 400 chimps will be moved to a national sanctuary, where they will have room to live and play in peace.
The proposal also called for major cuts to grants to study the remaining chimps in labs. The Council of Councils noted that chimps should only be used when there is no other way to study a threat to human health, and that the research ought to be approved by an independent committee with members from the public. Currently, “there is no compelling scientific reason to maintain a large research population,” according to Daniel Geschwind, a researcher at University of California at Los Angeles and co-chairman of the group that made recommendations to an advisory panel for the NIH. “The majority of NIH-owned chimps should be designated for retirement.”
Those chimps will be going to a sanctuary just outside Shreveport, Louisiana called Chimp Haven. Nine already arrived there on Jan. 22, and seven more will arrive there today. Chimp Haven was built on a 200-acre park, and should offer the animals plenty of room and comfort, experts say.
Various animal rights and welfare organizations responded enthusiastically to the development, which may mark a turning point in how the U.S. sees animals in relation to scientific research. “At last, our federal government understands,” said PETA in a statement. “A chimpanzee should no more live in a laboratory than a human should live in a phone booth.”
Kathleen Conlee, vice president of the Humane Society of the U.S., remarked, “These recommendations reinforce what the public has been asking for, which is a move away from invasive research and getting these chimps to sanctuaries.”
NIH director Francis Collins said that significant scientific advances have rendered invasive research on chimps unnecessary, and furthermore that the animals’ similarity to humans “demands special consideration and respect.”
John P. Gluck, a University of New Mexico Department of Psychology professor, noted that there are valid moral concerns over the testing and invasive research of all animals – not merely chimps. In scientific research that uses animals in this way, he explained, “the lack of ethical self-examination is common and generally involves the denial or avoidance of animal suffering, resulting in the dehumanization of researchers and the degradation of their research subjects.”
Notably, the U.S. is one of the only countries in the world that still keeps and uses chimpanzees for research.
David Favre, a Michigan State University College of Law professor, said that reduced funding and bigger cuts to grants that go to chimp research might help the remaining animals, overall. “Then,” he said, “the practicality of the cost of keeping chimpanzees in these centers will rise up and result in most of them being dismantled.”
Photo: Conan, a chimpanzee, eats fruit at Chimp Haven in Louisiana. Jim Hudelson, The Shreveport Times/AP