Primate Rescue Center

Many ‘Retired’ NIH Research Chimps are Seriously Ill, Government Report Says

Erika Fleury April 20, 2016

The National Institutes of Health announced three years ago that hundreds of chimpanzees it held for medical research would be retired to a Louisiana sanctuary. Last year, it said that a last remaining colony of 50 chimps would also spend its final years in the sanctuary.

But the process of transferring chimps from three research labs in New Mexico and Texas — where some have been deliberately infected with hepatitis and other diseases — has been sluggish. Just seven chimps made the trip to Chimp Haven Federal Chimpanzee Retirement Sanctuary in 2015, The Washington Post’s Darryl Fears reported recently.

A new U.S. Government Accountability Office report echoed that, saying that 382 of the 561 NIH-owned or supported chimps remained in the labs as of Jan. 15. It faulted the NIH for not having “developed or communicated a clear implementation plan” to move them to the sanctuary, where 179 retired research chimps now live. The sanctuary currently has a capacity of 229, and it is raising money for an expansion that would allow it to take in 100 to 150 additional chimps, the report said.

Image courtesy Washington Post / Government Accountability Office

But more interesting than the GAO’s critique were unusual details its report included about the chimps’ health and living conditions. It’s no secret that as it studied human health, the NIH made its research chimps sick. But the numbers in the report make clear just how widely that happened.

According to the report:

  • 154 of the chimps, or 27 percent, are infected with HIV or some sort of hepatitis.
  • 261 chimps, or 38 percent, have some other, unspecified chronic illness.
  • The chimps range in age from 3 to 57.
  • 144 are considered “geriatric.”
  • Chimps are usually segregated by infection status and sometimes by gender.

The report also described, in very general terms, some of the facilities where the chimps are housed, and it included photos of some outdoor areas that might surprise those who picture the chimps in small cages. It did not specify where the photos were taken, however, so it’s possible they show Chimp Haven, the sanctuary. And it didn’t include photos of indoor enclosures.

The outdoor spaces for chimps include “corrals,” which are fenced open areas with climbing structures that can accommodate 10 or more chimps. The report said they’re used at Chimp Haven, as well as at the Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research in Bastrop, Tex. — a cancer research lab where 138 NIH chimps still reside.

“Primadomes” are geodesic domes about 34 feet in diameter, with climbing structures and grass, according to the report. They’re at Chimp Haven and the three labs, including the Alamogordo Primate Facility in New Mexico, where most chimps are descendants of those the U.S.’s original space program used for research, the report said.

Other “caged enclosures” are used at Chimp Haven, Alamogordo and at a lab in San Antonio, the report said.

- The Washington Post

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