NIH advised to retire most research chimps

Agency decision expected in March
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​Chimpanzees at Chimp Haven live in large social groups and enjoy daily behavioral enrichment, such as fishing for food treats in this fabricated termite mound. (Photo courtesy of Chimp Haven)

The National Institutes of Health is expected to announce a decision later this March on the future of hundreds of federally owned chimpanzees used in research funded by the agency.

Earlier this year, an independent advisory committee recommended most of the 451 chimpanzees be retired to the federal sanctuary system and a colony of approximately 50 animals be maintained for possible future research needs.

The committee also urged the NIH to end nearly half the 30 studies involving chimpanzees the agency is currently supporting. These studies, which include biomedical, behavioral, and comparative genomics projects, were determined to fall short of the rigorous criteria the NIH adopted after a 2011 Institute of Medicine review found little scientific necessity for using chimps as research subjects.

Prompted by the IOM review, the NIH announced it would support only chimpanzee studies that advanced public health; could not be performed with another animal species, including humans; and were conducted in ethologically appropriate physical and social environments or in the chimpanzee’s natural habitat (see JAVMA, Feb. 15, 2012).

The Working Group on the Use of Chimpanzees in National Institutes of Health–Supported Research, formed to develop a plan for implementing the IOM proposals, issued its report Jan. 22. It contained 28 recommendations for the NIH ranging from the placement of federally owned and supported chimpanzees to the process for determining when research involving man’s nearest genetic relative is scientifically necessary and consistent with the IOM principles.

Public comments on the working group report were being accepted through March 23. NIH Director Francis Collins is expected to announce a decision regarding the recommendations later that month.

The Humane Society of the United States welcomed most of the working group recommendations. “The Humane Society of the United States is extremely pleased that these experts confirm what the public has been urging: Move away from invasive chimpanzee experimentation and release these animals to the most appropriate setting available: sanctuary,” said Kathleen Conlee, HSUS vice president of animal research issues. “There are top-notch sanctuaries in the U.S., including federal sanctuary Chimp Haven, that have the capacity to expand and are ready to work with the government to provide these chimpanzees with the retirement they so greatly deserve.”

Chimp Haven operates the federal chimpanzee sanctuary, located on 200 acres in northwest Louisiana, where more than 120 chimpanzees receive lifetime care.

Dr. Abee pull quote

The working group report advises the NIH to “immediately” begin planning to expand these facilities to accommodate the chimpanzees selected for retirement. Planning must also commence on building a facility for the 50 or so chimpanzees to be kept for potential research. Ethologically appropriate housing for chimpanzees includes grouping a minimum of seven males and females together and a providing a primary living space of at least 1,000 square feet per individual.

The report does not include the projected costs of implementing the recommendations.

Dr. Christian Abee, director of the Michael E. Keeling Center in Bastrop, Texas, one of the research centers that maintains an NIH-supported chimpanzee colony, said the report has “serious flaws” and shows a lack of understanding of research resource management. If the working group recommendations are accepted, the 167 chimpanzees housed at the center would be relocated to Chimp Haven, disrupting stable social groups living together for many years at the center, he said.

Building new facilities while “excellent” ones such as those at Keeling Center already exist would be a wasteful use of federal dollars, Dr. Abee added, and comes at a time when the NIH budget is already tight.

“The overall goal of the report appears to be focused on eliminating the availability of chimpanzees for research of any kind. This will make it very difficult or impossible to carry out studies that would ultimately save lives,” Dr. Abee said. “It is my hope that NIH Director Dr. Collins will not simply accept the report as written. There are some parts of the report that can be accomplished, but the recommendations as written cannot be implemented in a manner consistent with the IOM report that he accepted in 2012.”

The working group recommends the NIH replace the Interagency Animal Models Committee with an independent oversight committee to advise on the proposed use of chimpanzees in research. The current committee, according to the report, is not considered independent from other individuals and bodies that review and approve grant applications submitted to the NIH.

The oversight committee is to be separate from extramural initial review groups, intramural scientific program personnel, and institute or center directors, according to the recommendations. In addition, the oversight committee’s reviews would take place after the standard reviews and approvals by these entities. Reviews are to focus on whether the proposed research is consistent with the IOM principles and criteria for the use of chimpanzees in research.

The working group also counseled the NIH against supporting any long-term maintenance of chimpanzees intended for research on new, emerging, or re-emerging diseases in biosafety level 2 or greater biocontainment-level facilities. The agency also should not revitalize breeding strategies to derive a population of chimpanzees for any research purposes, the working group said.

The report of the Working Group on the Use of Chimpanzees in NIH-Supported Research is available online at