March 01, 2003


 Retiring to a chimp paradise

Veterinarians take a lead role in establishing a federally funded sanctuary system for retired research chimpanzees

Posted Feb. 15, 2003

After more than 35 years of working with chimpanzees in research, including Air Force chimpanzees, Dr. Thomas Butler retired from his post at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research. Now, Dr. Butler and a handful of other veterinarians are making sure research chimpanzees have a shot at retirement, too.


The veterinarians, who come from a wide range of backgrounds—from military service and biomedical research to animal protection to laboratory and small animal medicine—are providing their leadership and expertise to help establish a federally funded sanctuary system for retired research chimpanzees.

The federal sanctuary system began to take shape in September 2002 when the National Center for Research Resources, a component of the National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services, awarded a 10-year, $19 million contract to Chimp Haven Inc. Chimp Haven will act as a contractor of the government and will run the chimpanzee sanctuary system with some government oversight. The Chimpanzee Health, Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection Act signed into law in 2000 created the sanctuary program and funding mechanism.

Chimp Haven, a private, nonprofit organization based in Shreveport, La., will provide lifetime care for federally owned or supported chimpanzees that are no longer needed for biomedical research. The organization's Shreveport facility is expected to accept the first group of chimpanzees—up to 70 animals—in 2005, and the facility may eventually hold up to 200 chimpanzees, officials said. Additional sanctuaries may become subcontractors of Chimp Haven if the need surpasses the capacity of the Shreveport facility.

"NCRR takes very seriously its responsibility for the health and welfare of research animals," said Judith Vaitukaitus, MD, director of NCRR, in a statement. "With this contract, our goal is to ensure that the highest level of humane care is provided to these animals, which have contributed to biomedical research. We are pleased that a contractor such as Chimp Haven has undertaken this important task and know from our interactions with them that they will show compassion for these chimpanzees and will ensure that the animals receive quality care and treatment."

Taking the lead
Dr. William T. Watson is the director of the Chimp Sanctuary Program at the NCRR and is providing government oversight of Chimp Haven. Dr. Watson, who during his more than 35-year career has directed laboratory animal resources at NIH and Massachusetts General Hospital and coordinated the biomedicine program at Tuskegee University, said he sees the position as an opportunity to give something back to the chimpanzees that have contributed so much to science.

"I felt that this was a win-win for everyone involved," Dr. Watson said, explaining that the sanctuary system will provide the chimpanzees with high-quality care and will be a more cost-effective alternative than housing chimpanzees in a laboratory setting.

Dr. Butler, who co-founded Chimp Haven with behaviorist Linda Brent, PhD, and now serves as chair of the board of directors, said his motivations for becoming involved were also twofold—to provide for the chimpanzees and to create a more cost-effective way to care for them.

"It was both emotion and business," he said.

There are currently about 900 federally owned or supported chimpanzees in U.S. laboratories. Some are no longer needed for research; others have never been used for research, Dr. Watson said. The "surplus" of chimps has occurred, in part, because of a government-funded breeding program instituted in 1986 to meet the demand for chimpanzees in AIDS research, according to government reports. Chimpanzees turned out to be poor models for the disease, and fewer were needed for research than expected.

Maintaining the chimpanzees is expensive. The government spends about $7.3 million each year to care for the animals, according to a 1997 National Academy of Sciences report that recommended that the government establish a sanctuary for the surplus chimpanzees.

Housing the chimpanzees in a sanctuary will be more cost effective, according to officials. One of the reasons is the chimpanzees will live in larger social groups of 15 to 20 animals, compared with the smaller social groups—of at least three to four animals—they live in at the research facilities. Another reason is that private funds will help to support Chimp Haven. As part of the contract, Chimp Haven will supplement the federal funding with $4 million in private funding, collected through donations and fund-raising efforts.

A common goal
The CHIMP Act mandated that individuals from a variety of perspectives be included in the development and oversight of the sanctuary system. To satisfy this requirement, the founders of Chimp Haven assembled a board of directors that includes behaviorists, biomedical researchers, conservationists, members of the animal protection community, businesspeople, and veterinarians.

Dr. Peter Theran, the vice president of the health and hospitals division of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and Dr. Larry M. Hawk, the president and CEO of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, serve on the Chimp Haven board as representatives of the animal protection community.

Veterinarians also are serving on an advisory board to Chimp Haven, which includes Dr. Kathryn A. Bayne, the associate director of the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care; and Dr. Michael E. Keeling, chair of Department of Veterinary Sciences at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center.

Dr. Theran, who helped draft the 1997 NAS report, said the sanctuary project is groundbreaking because it involves an unprecedented amount of cooperation between the government and nonprofit organizations to address an animal welfare issue.

"I think this is the first time a federal research institution has said these animals deserve a higher level of ethical consideration," he added.

Drs. Butler, Watson, Hawk, and Theran agreed that veterinary leadership is essential for the sanctuary system.

"Veterinarians will play a key role in overall success of the sanctuary system," Dr. Watson said. He explained that in addition to providing medical expertise, veterinarians are knowledgeable about the environmental and nutritional needs of the chimpanzees.

Dr. Hawk, who along with the ASPCA helped lobby for the CHIMP Act, said he and the ASPCA have provided fund-raising help for Chimp Haven.

Additionally, the veterinarians on the board bring with them experience managing large chimpanzee colonies and caring for animals that have been infected with diseases.

Dr. Theran said that by taking a leadership role in establishing Chimp Haven, veterinarians are bolstering their position as animal welfare experts, a position he believes has been weakened somewhat by a lack of veterinary leadership in some areas of animal welfare.

"Veterinarians should be, and in many cases are, the people the public looks to for expertise on animal welfare," he said. "I think (that position) is a little in jeopardy."

Dr. Hawk reiterated the conclusion of the NAS report that euthanasia is not an option for these chimpanzees, and that publicly funded sanctuary should be provided for them.

"I think it's a debt society owes to these (chimpanzees)," Dr. Hawk said.

A community effort
The veterinarians helping to lead the sanctuary program were quick to point out that although veterinary participation is important, it took many people from all walks of life to get the project on its feet.

The citizens of Caddo Parish, La., donated 200 acres of land to Chimp Haven, and helped with fund raising. The land is lush and very similar to the African habitats wild chimpanzees call home, according to the veterinarians. The sanctuary will have multi-acre outdoor habitats with natural groundcover, trees, and edible vegetation, according to Chimp Haven officials.

"It's probably the closest to Africa these chimps will ever come," Dr. Hawk said. "It's exciting to return these guys to a normal setting to live out their lives."

To learn more about Chimp Haven, visit