These are the most exciting of times for everyone paying attention to The HSUS’ campaign to end the use of chimpanzees in invasive, harmful experiments. On the heels of a groundbreaking proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list all chimpanzees as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, I have more progress to report – and so much of it is a derivative of our focus on protecting chimps. Today, the National Institutes of Health – the federal agency that owns or supports approximately half of the estimated 850 chimpanzees in U.S. laboratories – made a long-awaited announcement: the agency has accepted and will begin implementing most of the recommendations put forth in January by an expert, independent advisory group to retire chimps from laboratories and move them to sanctuaries. This is a significant agency decision that will bring about positive and sweeping changes for government-owned chimpanzees in laboratories.
In addition to the NIH announcing its commitment to retire the vast majority of the more than 350 government-owned chimpanzees currently in laboratories, this development will also produce a drastic decrease in government-funded grants involving chimpanzees in laboratories and shut the door on NIH breeding of chimps. The NIH has decided to retain, but not breed, up to 50 of its chimpanzees in a laboratory for potential future use if there is an absolute need. That unfortunate decision is mitigated by stipulations that these animals should be kept in “ethologically appropriate” settings, closer to what would occur in their natural environments, which means they will live in complex social groups and have year round outdoor access. The NIH rejected the panel’s recommendation of more than 1,000 square feet of living space per chimpanzee and said the minimum space requirement has yet to be determined. The need for this reserve group of chimpanzees will be reassessed periodically. And, finally, an independent committee, which includes members of the public, will be established to assess future chimpanzee grant proposals, making it a high bar for any future research on these remaining chimps.
Consistent pressure over the years on a number of fronts – and our members weighing in at every turn – has allowed us to reach this pivot point for chimps. Three years ago, NIH had a plan to transfer approximately 200 chimpanzees from a New Mexico facility, where no harmful research is permitted, to a Texas laboratory, which sparked a massive outcry from the public and lawmakers, eventually leading to today’s exciting announcement. In response to the outcry, NIH halted the ill-advised chimpanzee transfer and commissioned a study by the Institute of Medicine, which found that chimpanzee use in research is largely unnecessary and, further, did not identify any current area of biomedical research for which chimpanzee use is critical. The IOM report also laid out a set of criteria for assessing future research proposals.
The NIH immediately accepted the IOM report and established a working group to advise them on implementing the report’s findings and criteria. Since January, more than 57,000 of our supporters made their voices heard in support of the working group’s recommendations, most of which were officially accepted today.
Of course, there are still many issues that The HSUS must continue to address in order to reach our goals – including working to ensure the actual move of chimpanzees to sanctuary, and assuring that the final USFWS proposal addresses the use of privately owned chimpanzees in privately funded research as well as captive chimps used in film and TV commercials and the exotic pet trade. I have no doubt that this announcement by NIH coupled with the USFWS proposal will alter the way humans treat our closest living animal relatives and it marks an unmistakable step forward for our nation toward the end of the use of chimps in invasive experiments.
P.S. If you haven’t yet done so yet, don’t forget to contact the USFWS and urge them to finalize their proposed rule to increase protections for all chimpanzees before the August 12 deadline. Please help move this effort over the finish line!