Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Build it and they will come

The National Institutes of Health recently announced that they will relocate 110 NIH-owned chimpanzees currently located at the New Iberia Research Center in New Iberia, La., because NIH funding to the facility will end in August 2013. Moving that many research chimpanzees, safely, will require the better part of a year, and so the process needs to start now. (For more, see Update on Relocation.) 

According to NIH, “approximately ten of the chimpanzees will be relocated to the federally supported chimpanzee sanctuary operated by Chimp Haven, Inc., in Keithsville, La., which would put Chimp Haven at or near full occupancy.”
They will relocate the remaining chimpanzees to Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio, where they will be ineligible for use in biomedical research. “Texas Biomedical has the specialized resources, experience, capacity, and funding mechanism to provide continued high-quality care for the chimpanzees,” NIH says. 
Naturally, we all want all of those chimps to go to sanctuaries. Public trust in Texas Biomedical is understandably low. Besides, even if the Institute was the best research facility in the universe, these chimpanzees deserve retirement at a sanctuary.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve met colleagues who work at NIH. I’ve asked them, point blank, whether director Francis Collins gives a hoot about the research chimps. Or is he, I asked, playing chimp advocates for fools? To a person, these colleagues praised Collins. So how am I to take his supposed treachery? Why would he put these poor chimpanzees into a research institute?
I decided to look deeper than the layer of press releases sent out by a bevy of organizations this week. What I found surprised me. I can’t see that NIH has any choice. There appears to be no qualified sanctuary facility with enough built space to take them in. 

Why can't the New Iberia chimps go to Chimp Haven?
Chimp Haven operates the nation's sanctuary system for the federal research chimps. Right now, they ARE the "sanctuary system." (No other sanctuary currently has the ability, for various reasons, to take in retired federal research chimpanzees.) 

In 2002, Chimp Haven signed a contract with the federal government. (See the contract, here.) Under that 10-year contract, Chimp Haven was supposed to construct and operate a sanctuary that would initially house 200 chimpanzees. Here we are a decade later and, according to ChimpCare, Chimp Haven currently has 125 chimpanzees. Recent statements by Chimp Haven indicated that they could take the ten chimps that NIH is sending to them, and an additional ten beyond that. So let’s say they’ve got the ability to house and manage 145 to 150 chimpanzees. They are at least 50 spaces short.
Why hasn’t Chimp Haven constructed facilities for the 200 chimpanzees, as provided in their federal contract? “Of course no sanctuary has space for 110 chimps sitting empty that would be silly,” Linda Brent told me. “Facilities are usually built when there is a need, as been done in the past under our agreements with NIH.”
“If NIH has determined that they need to retire 110 chimpanzees – then the sanctuary community should be included in the discussion to determine the most cost effective way to expand and accommodate the new chimpanzees,” Brent says.
It seems to me that discussion already took place, when Chimp Haven made their proposal, and the government accepted it, in 2002.
The contract with Chimp Haven provides for the accommodation of new chimpanzees. "Future expansion at this site will ultimately house 300 chimpanzees,” the contract says. And then it goes further. “At least two other sites (owned by Chimp Haven or subcontracted to other sanctuaries) will accommodate groups of 75 or more chimpanzees, as NIH determines that need, for a maximum of 900 chimpanzees."
So far, that isn’t happening. Brent told me “we just recently completed a master site plan to locate all the future facilities on our 200 acres. Modest calculations indicate that we could house over 400 chimpanzees.” Which, of course, is still less than anticipated in their contract.
Is the shortfall in sanctuary facilities due to money problems?
As I understand the current law, there is a $30 million cap on federal payments to Chimp Haven. Additionally, regulations provide that "over the term of the 10-year, cost-sharing contract [that started in 2002], NCRR will provide approximately $19 million in total costs, and Chimp Haven will contribute approximately $4 million toward direct costs. NCRR also awarded two construction grants, totaling a little over $11.5 million, so that Chimp Haven could develop and build the state-of-the-art facility." (See 42 CFR Part 9, Standards of Care for Chimpanzees Held in the Federally Supported Chimpanzee Sanctuary System; Final Rule, Oct. 10, 2008.)
I asked Brent if these provisions have been met. “Can you tell me how much Chimp Haven has received from NCRR since your inception, and how much you've raised in private funding?” I asked her.
Brent didn’t answer my questions although she acknowledged the $30 million cap issue, telling me, “it is unclear to me what the implications of the $30 million funding cap might be and we are looking into this issue now.” NIH advises that I will have to file a Freedom of Information Act response to get the financial information. So, while I do that, let’s look at the other housing option available under the Chimp Act and the regulations: other sanctuaries.

Why can't the New Iberia chimps go to other sanctuaries?
We have to wrap our head around the fact that Chimp Haven is the primary contractor for the sanctuary system. Regulations envision a possible need for subcontractors (who would come in handy now, to take these New Iberia chimpanzees), but the feds require any sanctuary to “achieve accreditation by a nationally recognized animal program accrediting body (such as the AAALAC, the AZA, or similar recognized body).”
I've gone through the accredited organizations at AAALAC and found no primate sanctuary (besides Chimp Haven) listed. Neither are there are any primate sanctuaries with AZA accreditation. It appears, therefore, that none of the other chimpanzee sanctuaries meet federal qualifications for subcontracting, at least as those regulations are currently interpreted, and thus Chimp Haven has no subcontractors lined up to provide care and management of retired research chimpanzees.
This does not bode well for the future. With the implementation of the Institute of Medicine recommendations on the use of chimpanzees in NIH-funded research, NIH anticipates that there will be a substantial reduction in the number of chimpanzees needed for research, and those chimpanzees will need to be placed in somewhere. We’ve known this since last December.

Where will future federal research chimp retirees go?
The thousands of people around the country who joined the fight to end to chimpanzee research deserve an explanation of why the federal sanctuary system appears to be falling short. We deserve to know how much of the $30 million in federal money has been spent at Chimp Haven to build facility space for only 150 chimps. Most of all, we deserve a public discussion about some real solutions.

We fight to free the chimps from research. The NIH has agreed to end research, at least for the vast majority of chimps now in federal programs. Now we have to get practical. We need to fight, even harder, to prepare for their freedom. I believe that if we build additional sanctuary facilities, they will come.

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