Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Lack of money may block retirement for federal research chimps


Today I was at the meeting where the National Institutes of Health Council of Councils Working Group on the Use of Chimpanzees in NIH-Supported Research presented their final report

The working group developed an impressive set of recommendations, for the most part. The problem, as usual, is finding the money.

The group's first recommendation sets the tone:

“The majority of NIH-owned chimpanzees should be designated for retirement and transferred to the federal sanctuary system. Planning should start immediately to expand current facilities to accommodate these chimpanzees. The federal sanctuary system is the most species-appropriate environment currently available and thus is the preferred environment for long-term housing of chimpanzees no longer required for research.”

Recommendations would reduce federal research chimp population by 86%
Of the 451 federal research chimpanzees that will still be owned or supported by NIH after the 110 New Iberia chimpanzees are retired, the group recommends stopping federal support for research with all but 50 of them. (The Texas Biomedical Research Institute gets federal money in support of 91 chimps, but since NIH doesn’t own them, it cannot force Texas Biomedical to retire those chimpanzees – they can only cease funding.) Of the 360 now in research and owned by NIH, then, the group is recommending an 86% reduction of chimps used for federal research.

That reduction is great news – for everyone except for the 50 chimpanzees who carry on the disgraceful U.S. tradition of being the only country (besides Gabon) that allows bioinvasive research on chimps. I have to admit, I had a hard time wrapping my head around this. Although the group recommends keeping 50 chimps, it also recommended that NIH continue or “conditionally approve” nine of 13 current projects in comparative genomics or behavioral research. Those nine projects involve 290 chimpanzees. How would researchers continue research projects on 290 chimpanzees if only 50 of them remained in federal research programs? As I understand, two factors come into play here. The working group recommends that NIH consider funding research in “nontraditional” research settings that can maintain high standards of welfare, i.e., at zoos or sanctuaries, or in the wild, so we could get the chimps out of labs but still continue any work that is important to humankind and to science. Second, I came away from the meeting with a feeling that the "conditionally approved" projects won’t be approved again, once the current round of contracts are finished – because of a strict new review process set up in the recommendations. Even if the research is minimally invasive, the new standards would not justify keeping chimps in labs for current projects. Setting the population at 50 reinforces this momentum.

Recommendations envision a great retirement
We really couldn’t ask for better recommendations on physical and social environments required for all federally owned or supported chimpanzees. 

“Chimpanzee must have the opportunity to live in sufficiently large, complex, multi-male, multi-female social groupings, ideally consisting of at least 7 individuals,” Dr. Lloyd stated during the presentation. “Pairs, trios, and even small groups of 4 to 6 individuals do not provide the social complexity required to meet the social needs of this cognitively advanced species.”

“Chimpanzees must be housed in environments that provide outdoor access year round.”

And it gets even better. They should be able to walk on grass, climb, forage, construct nests, and have choice and self-determination.

The group recommends that the facilities employ experienced behaviorists, chimp trainers, and enrichment specialists. They note that positive reinforcement is the only acceptable method of training. And they emphasize that “personnel working with chimpanzees must receive training in core institutional values promoting psychological and behavioral well-being of chimpanzees in their care.”

We should be celebrating the progress! But we can’t… at least not yet.

There is no new money
We’ve all seen the battles in Congress over money. Some Congressional Republicans even think that the federal government should be shut down unless there are substantial cuts in the federal budget. Those fiscal realities are substantial roadblocks to accomplishing all that these recommendations envision.

The CHIMP Act, passed a decade ago, set a cap of $30 million for building the “federal sanctuary system” that is essentially Chimp Haven’s space for 150 chimps. More than $29 million has been spent, and NIH expects to reach the cap this summer. The Humane Society of the United States and others are raising money to build space for the 110 chimpanzees that were retired from New Iberia Research Center. That still leaves the 310 hopefully soon-to-be-retired chimpanzees homeless. They may have to stay right where they are – in the research labs.

Unlike the cap imposed on payments to Chimp Haven, there is no cap on payments made to research labs for housing and feeding the research chimps. The group recommends that seven of the eight “colony housing and care projects” are conditionally approved to continue. They end the research component of the projects, but would continue to pay the facilities for maintenance of the chimpanzees in “transitional housing conditions” for the next three to five years. Hopefully, by then, real sanctuary space could be developed, and a realistic source of funding for sanctuary care could be established. In the meantime, the chimps would stay in the labs.

Retirement remains a dream
NIH Director Francis Collins will make the final decision, around the end of March. These recommendations are just recommendations, albeit probably the most important set of recommendations since the U.S. started the chimp programs. NIH will decide whether they will make them real. NIH can pull most (but I wish all) of the chimps out of research, and that won’t cost a lot, but will the chimps be able to live out their lives as envisioned by the working group? We have to decide whether we will fight for the money to fund it all.

We all support the Great Ape Protection Act, as it has evolved over the five years it has been under Congressional consideration. As ape advocates, however, we might want to spend as much time and effort encouraging Congress to provide adequate funding for the chimp sanctuaries. We need to support NIH efforts as they prepare for the future. In the end, the federal research chimpanzees depend on us for their real retirement.

If you want to comment on the recommendations, go to the NIH Request for Information (which provides a link for electronic comment submission).

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