Saturday, February 14, 2015

Federally-owned retired research chimps are betrayed

Update, Feb. 16, 2015: I removed my original post (Feb. 14, 2015) on the status of the retired federal research chimpanzees. I based the post largely on reporting by CNN. Since then, multiple sources have told me that CNN's report was inaccurate. I have reached out to NIH, for their explanation on why, many months after Dr. Francis Collins announced that the research chimp community would be retired, few chimpanzees have been moved to Chimp Haven, the national sanctuary. I will re-post the article after I've given NIH the opportunity to respond to the CNN article, hopefully later this week. In the meantime, I'd like to apologize to Dr. Collins and the NIH staff for not checking with them first.

Update, February 18, 2015: I heard from NIH, and I am even more disheartened. Here is my re-written article:

Remember the celebration, the pure joy we all felt when the federal government announced in June 2013 that they would retire the federal research chimps? The National Institutes of Health, led by Dr. Francis Collins, would release the hundreds of chimpanzees to sanctuary, so they could live out the rest of their lives in comfort. Finally.

Research chimps are trained to open their mouths for medical exams. Photo by CNN.

Ah, I for one didn't pay attention to the small print. They would "retire the majority of the NIH-owned chimpanzees deemed unnecessary for biomedical research to the Federal Sanctuary System contingent upon resources and space availability in the sanctuary system."

I don’t know who feels most betrayed by the fact, as reported in this revealing CNN piece, that “only six of the 310 research chimps have been allowed to leave government research facilities, and the agency has no timetable for when it will retire the rest to sanctuaries. In the meantime, dozens of the chimps have died waiting.”

Well, actually, NIH tells me that the CNN number isn’t correct. They point out that 66 chimpanzees have been retired to Chimp Haven since NIH made its announcement in June 2013, not six. Also, they say, “as space comes open at the Federal Sanctuary [Chimp Haven], we feel confident that we will be able to identify chimpanzees to fill those spaces without interfering with the selection of the population of 50 chimpanzees for future research.”

And that’s the problem, isn’t it? AS SPACE COMES OPEN

A little over a year ago, in December 2013, I praised Dr. Collins in my blogpost. I made him my Person of the Year. “In a stunning series of decisions that has ended research for most of the federally-supported chimps, this man has turned our image of government indifference upside down,” I wrote. “His support for transferring the use of federal dollars from research labs to the sanctuary system has done more than we had a right to hope to advance the quality of life for these chimps.” My praise was, let us say, worse than premature – it was outright foolish.

When Congress passed legislation in November 2013, giving NIH the needed flexibility within its budget to retire government-owned chimpanzees to sanctuaries, then-Senator Mary Landrieu assured the sanctuary that “this legislation will ensure that when chimpanzees are retired from medical research that they are well cared for and live the remainder of their lives in a natural setting.”

But there is no sanctuary in sight for the chimps sitting in research labs. NIH explained it to me this way:

“The NIH FY 2016 budget request does not include funds for construction to expand the Federal Sanctuary operated by Chimp Haven, Inc. in Keithville, Louisiana… As space becomes available in the Federal sanctuary due to natural mortality [my emphasis], NIH will continue to transfer chimpanzees to Chimp Haven.”

In other words, the federal government does not intend to use its funds to build sanctuary space to house its chimpanzees. They are waiting for chimps to die, so others can take their place. Oh, and they are “continuing to pursue other options for transferring NIH-owned and -supported chimpanzees to the Federal Sanctuary System” -- but they provide no specifics.

NIH did remind me that Chimp Haven accepts donations from the public and philanthropic organizations for construction of additional retirement facilities. Yes, we know that. Organizations and individuals have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Chimp Haven, so they could provide housing and care for the newly-retired federally-owned chimps. Chimp Haven has put that money to good use, caring for over 200 chimps.

It’s plain to see, now, that the federal agency that owns the chimpanzees, that encouraged and supported and paid for their biomedical exploitation for decades, has essentially washed their hands of the troublesome animals. There is no federal money forthcoming for sanctuary.

I could kick myself. I wasn't paying attention. But even as I know it's my own fault for not paying close enough attention, I feel betrayed by NIH. Even worse, did I, through my complacency and ill-placed hopes, betray the hundreds of chimpanzees who have no hope for sanctuary – until another chimp dies and opens up a spot at Chimp Haven?


  1. Thank you for staying on top of this.

  2. Hmmm, the controversy continues. I'm hearing that although NIH is claiming that 66 chimps have been retired, 60 of those were already “on their way” before the NIH decision… so it’s a bit fuzzy whether they should be counted as being retired as a result of the NIH decision….