A chimpanzee munches on a watermelon at Chimp Haven. Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

By: David Grimm

October 24, 2019


The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) will not be retiring all of its chimpanzees to a sanctuary, as it originally pledged to do, agency head Francis Collins announced today. Nearly four dozen chimps at a biomedical primate facility in New Mexico will remain there because they are too old and sick to move, he said, although scientific studies of them have ended. Some federally owned or supported chimpanzees at other biomedical primate facilities may also not be retired to sanctuaries.

“Some of these animals are quite old and very frail. It was just going to be too unsafe to move all of them,” says NIH Deputy Director James Anderson, whose division oversees the NIH Chimpanzee Management Program. “We’re not going to take the risk.”

Chimp Haven in Keithville, Louisiana, the national chimpanzee sanctuary where the animals were supposed to be retired, laments the decision. “We’re disappointed,” says Stephen Ross, the sanctuary’s board chair. “We believe that every chimpanzee should have the opportunity to live out the rest of their life in a sanctuary, and we’re concerned this decision will set a precedent for other chimps still waiting to be retired.”

Biomedical research on chimpanzees effectively ended in 2015, when NIH announced it would no longer fund such studies. The agency also pledged to retire all of the approximately 300 chimps it owned or supported to Chimp Haven. Experts expected that the 340 or so other chimpanzees privately owned for research would follow suit. But retirement proceeded slowly. In the 2 years after NIH’s decision, only 51 government-owned or -supported chimps and 22 privately owned chimps had entered sanctuaries.

In 2017, NIH announced a formal retirement plan, with Anderson predicting most of its animals would enter a sanctuary within 10 years. And by the following year, retirement had picked up, with more chimps in sanctuaries than in biomedical facilities for the first time. Today, only 178 government-owned or -supported chimpanzees live in biomedical primate facilities: the Alamogordo Primate Facility in New Mexico; the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Bastrop, Texas; and the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio. About 190 chimpanzees remain at two private facilities: the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana, and Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta.

Many of these remaining chimps have lived at their facilities for decades, which means they’re nearing the end of their lives, and have diabetes, heart conditions, and other infirmities. Some in the biomedical community have argued that these animals are too sick and frail to survive the stresses of a long trip and a new living facility, with new humans and chimps to get used to. They point to nine older chimps that died within 2 years of being transferred from the MD Anderson Cancer Center to Chimp Haven about 5 years ago.

In 2018, NIH created a working group to help the agency figure out which chimpanzees were fit to move to a sanctuary. A panel of NIH veterinarians not involved with the agency’s Chimpanzee Management Program reviewed the health records of chimps at the Alamogordo facility and consulted the vets there. In a report completed in September, the vets recommended that all 44 remaining chimpanzees at Alamogordo remain there for the rest of their lives. “Many of the animals had varying degrees of cardiovascular disease, [and] these conditions could cause the animals to die in transport,” according to the report.

“The NIH’s decision is in the best interest of these elderly and frail animals,” writes Matthew Bailey, president of the Washington, D.C.–based National Association for Biomedical Research, in a statement released today. “The chimpanzees will live out their days in Alamogordo, where … they have forged close bonds with their social groups and their caretakers.”

But the Washington, D.C.–based Humane Society of the United States says NIH’s evaluation process was flawed. “The NIH panel didn’t include vets with sanctuary experience, and it just rubber stamped what the labs wanted,” says Kathleen Conlee, the organization’s vice president of animal research issues. She contends that the Alamogordo facility wants to keep the animals because they get NIH funding to care for them. (A spokesperson for the company that manages the facility directed all press queries to NIH.) “We are extremely disappointed that NIH has broken its promise to these chimpanzees,” Conlee says.

Ross says NIH shouldn’t just look at the potential drawbacks of moving the animals, but also at the upside. “There are tremendous benefits of getting them in the large, dynamic social groups we have at Chimp Haven,” he says, in which chimps “meet new friends and in most cases keep old friends, too.” He also says many (though not all) of the animals at Chimp Haven are free to climb trees and roam large, open-topped, grassy enclosures—something they can’t do at Alamogordo. “The benefits of sending these animals to a sanctuary far outweigh the risks.”

Anderson says NIH’s vets had the best interests of the animals in mind. And he contends that the chimps that will remain at Alamogordo will still live good lives, in their existing social groups and with access to the outdoors (see video above).

NIH will next turn its attention to the chimps at the MD Anderson Center. Fifty-nine animals of the animals there have already gone to Chimp Haven this year, Anderson says, but he’s not sure how many of the remaining 63 will make it. “It’s possible some will retire where they are.”

*Correction, 25 October, 3:20 p.m.: This story originally misstated the number of chimpanzees owned or supported by the government.