Guest Blog-republished with permission.First published by AMP News Service Wednesday, November 18, 2015
In a late afternoon conference call with scientific society and research advocacy leaders, a National Institutes of Health official confirmed media reports that the NIH is planning to retire the 50 NIH-owned chimpanzees that currently remain available for research, and  send them to sanctuaries.  The NIH will also phase out its funding for the remaining research chimpanzees that it supports, but does not own. A formal statement by NIH is expected later today, but as of this writing had not yet been posted to the NIH site. In 2013, following recommendations by an internal advisory panel, NIH retired over 300 chimpanzees, maintaining a reserve of 50 animals that could be called upon in case of a critical research need.  At that time, NIH indicated that it would revisit the situation every few years.  After a review of the research landscape this summer, NIH Director Francis Collins made the decision to retire the remaining chimpanzees.  Where will the animals go when few sanctuaries can adequately care for research chimpanzees and those that can are reaching capacity?  The first transfer of animals will reportedly be of 20 NIH-owned chimpanzees from the Southwest National Primate Research Center in Texas to Chimp Haven in Louisiana. That transfer will take up all but five of Chimp Haven’s currently available spaces. NIH then plans to move 139 chimpanzees from the Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research, part of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.  Chris Abee, director of the center, told Nature that this would essentially end chimpanzee research there.  “If these chimpanzees are moved to Chimp Haven, these facilities will be empty while Chimp Haven will have to build more facilities.  This decision demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the quality of care and the quality of life provided chimpanzees at the Keeling Center,” he told Nature. Nature also quotes Frankie Trull of FBR who questioned the logic of NIH’s decision, and Allyson Bennett, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.  Bennett raises questions about the wisdom of moving the animals to sanctuaries which are not subject to the standards and oversight of NIH-supported facilities.  Peter Walsh, a disease ecologist at the University of Cambridge, told Nature that his work to produce an Ebola vaccine for wild chimpanzees has been jeopardized. The NIH official on this afternoon’s conference call was careful to state that the decision absolutely did not set a precedent, and that there was a continued need for research with other nonhuman primates and other animals. 

Nevertheless, animal rights activists are making it clear that NIH’s decision will not stop protests against research with other animals. PETA’s Justin Goodman said “we are relieved and happy that NIH is fulfilling its promise to finally end this dark legacy. We will continue to encourage the same considerations for all primates in laboratories.” In a media statement this afternoon, Wayne Pacelle of the HSUS stated, “It’s rare to close out a category of animal use so emphatically.  That’s exactly what’s happening here, and it’s thrilling!” PCRM’s John Pippin also took a victory lap in a press release this afternoon. The coming days and weeks will certainly see this story picked up by media worldwide, with animal rights groups such as PETA, PCRM and HSUS asserting that they influenced NIH in making its decision, and using the decision to mount new fundraising campaigns to support further pressure on NIH and animal-based research in general.