A chimp uses a stick to poke into a mock termite mound at the Chimp Haven sanctuary in Louisiana. GERALD HERBERT/AP

WASHINGTON — The National Institutes of Health plans to move the “vast majority” of its chimpanzees formerly used for research to a sanctuary in Louisiana, Director Francis Collins told STAT Thursday.

“We do believe that chimpanzees should be moved to the retirement facility unless there is really very strong evidence that this would be acutely harmful to them and threaten their ultimate survival,” Collins said.

The NIH released a slate of decisions Thursday laying out its plans for the hundreds of chimps that are still living in agency-supported research facilities.

Three years ago, Collins stopped research on the primates, but for many of them, there was nowhere to go — the one chimpanzee retirement home in the country, in Louisiana, couldn’t take all of them at once, and the long drive could have been traumatic or otherwise harmful for the chimps themselves. Ever since, the agency has been working to come up with a plan for how to decide what to do with the chimps.

The NIH’s decision Thursday brings the agency one step closer to knowing exactly which chimpanzees will make it to the sanctuary and which will live out the rest of their days in the lab. Currently, about 250 chimpanzees owned or supported by NIH are housed at laboratories.

Some of the decisions take effect immediately. Starting Thursday, chimpanzees should be moved to the sanctuary, called Chimp Haven, “unless relocation would severely and irreversibly accelerate deterioration of the chimpanzee’s physical and behavioral health,” the NIH decided.

“Certainly, many of these are elderly animals,” Collins said. “They will have chronic illnesses. That’s not [a] sufficient reason to avoid the transfer. It needs to be something that is much more severe and potentially irreversible to justify keeping them in place.”

That decision will be made jointly between the research lab where the chimp is living currently, and Chimp Haven, which would be taking the chimp in. A three-person panel of veterinarians unaffiliated with either the lab or the sanctuary will weigh in on any disputes.

The NIH is also kicking off a process of standardizing the chimpanzees’ medical records so that researchers can better understand if it’s appropriate to move a chimp to the sanctuary or not. Collins said that the NIH has already been working with facilities toward this goal.

“We think chimpanzees should have what people also have in terms of medical records that are transferable and accurate and reliable,” Collins said. “You can see how hard it’s been for humans, but we hope, for a limited number of chimpanzees, we can accomplish this in a reasonable period of time.”

In the meantime, some chimpanzees will keep living in the research labs, but, Collins said in a statement, that doesn’t mean what you think it means.

“Contrary to what is often portrayed in the media, chimpanzees at research facilities do not live individually in cages or in laboratories,” Collins said in a statement. “In fact, chimpanzees at all NIH-supported facilities have long been housed in social groups with the ability to roam indoors and outdoors, with access to large structures that allow for species-specific behavior such as climbing and swinging.”

Chimp Haven expressed its support for the NIH’s decisions.

“Chimp Haven is pleased overall with NIH’s response and decisions related to the working group’s recommendations for retiring chimpanzees to the federal sanctuary system,” Chimp Haven president and CEO Rana Smith said in a statement. “It is our shared goal to retire as many former research chimpanzees to sanctuary as possible, and to do so as expeditiously as possible always with the chimpanzees’ health and welfare as the highest priority.”

A spokesperson for one of the laboratories that currently houses about 77 chimpanzees that are partially supported by NIH, the Southwest National Primate Research Center at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, said that the lab is glad that the NIH will be developing clear, holistic guidelines.

“It is critical that the evaluation of health be determined by looking at each animal individually from a behavioral, social and wellness perspective,” spokesperson Lisa Cruz said.

Stat News