The National Institutes of Health says it remains committed to retiring nearly 255 federally owned or supported chimpanzees to a sanctuary. This announcement, made late last week, is a favorable development in a long-running, and sometimes rocky, saga that has been unfolding ever since we succeeded in making it unlawful to conduct invasive research on chimpanzees in 2015. But the struggle isn’t over.
This issue matters so much to me, and that’s why, in July, I urged you to reach out to the NIH to say that you want these chimpanzees retired to sanctuary as soon as possible. The NIH received more than 4,000 public comments, and on Thursday, NIH director Dr. Francis Collins stated that “NIH remains fully committed to retiring all chimpanzees it owns or supports to the Federal sanctuary unless relocation would severely or irreversibly accelerate deterioration of the chimpanzee’s physical or behavioral health.”
At this time, the government-owned or -supported chimpanzees are being held at three laboratories. Regrettably, a number of parties in the research community have been trying to stop these animals from being transferred to Chimp Haven, the national sanctuary for chimpanzees in Louisiana. The laboratories have a financial interest in holding on to the chimpanzees because they receive funding through government grants and contracts to care for them. Representatives of these institutions and a few allies have lately been claiming that many of the chimps shouldn’t be transported due to health issues and that, instead, they should remain in their facilities.
The report accompanying Dr. Collins’ statement made clear the agency’s commitment that chimpanzees will continue to be moved to Chimp Haven without delay as a new process for assessing chimpanzee health is implemented. This new assessment tool was recommended by an NIH-created working group that, in May, emphasized that as many chimpanzees as possible should be released to sanctuary. The tool can be used by the NIH to assess the health status of each chimpanzee, and make it possible to quickly retire healthy chimpanzees to sanctuary. Only those few who are extremely sick and would suffer from a severe deterioration in health from being transported would be held back.
We also welcome the fact that the laboratories themselves will no longer be left to decide whether the chimpanzees in their custody remain confined in the laboratories or are retired to sanctuary. If the responsible veterinarian at a laboratory wants to keep a chimpanzee at the facility, a final decision on the animal’s fate will be made by an independent panel.
While the news is generally good, we have remaining concerns with the process that will require our watchful eye and engagement. For instance, we are disappointed that the NIH has chosen not to include a primate behaviorist or ethicist or a veterinarian with sanctuary experience on the independent panel. Instead, the panel is made up of three of NIH’s own primate veterinarians who will likely have spent at least part of their careers working with primates in a laboratory setting.
In the near term, the NIH will need to operate with transparency and in a timely manner to assure the American public that it is trying to do what is truly best for these animals. We urge the agency to keep the public updated on panel appointees, on changes to its assessment protocols for the animals, and any decisions surrounding the fate of individual chimpanzees.
The fight to end chimpanzee use in experimentation has been waged for a long time, too long quite frankly, and I want to see this final challenge resolved the right way. The end of chimpanzee research and the news that these animals, who have spent a lifetime in captivity, would be retired to sanctuary was welcomed with enthusiasm by most Americans. For the chimpanzees’ sake, and for our own, we need to do all that we can now to ensure that these animals, held in labs with taxpayer funds, will finally get the necessary care and attention they deserve in retirement.