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March 01, 2020

Senators urge NIH to obey law and retire chimps to sanctuary

Published on February 12, 2020

Three U.S. senators are urging the National Institutes of Health to reverse its decision not to retire nearly four dozen chimpanzees at a biomedical primate facility in New Mexico to a sanctuary as originally promised.

Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico submitted a letter to NIH Director Francis Collins this past December requesting that the agency transfer 43 chimpanzees from the Alamogordo Primate Facility on Holloman Air Force Base to Chimp Haven in Keithville, Louisiana.

Two chimpanzees
Three U.S. senators object to a National Institutes of Health decision not to retire nearly four dozen chimpanzees at a biomedical primate facility in New Mexico to a sanctuary as the agency originally promised. The NIH says the remaining chimps were too frail to transfer to the sanctuary in Louisiana.

Starting in 2013, the NIH began to significantly reduce the use of chimps in agency-supported biomedical research. Ongoing projects were phased out, while no new studies were approved. Two years later, the NIH announced it would no longer fund any chimp-related research and that the roughly 300 chimps the agency owned or supported would be retired to Chimp Haven.

But last October, the NIH said the remaining chimpanzees at the New Mexico facility were too frail to transfer to Louisiana. “As chimpanzees age, they can develop serious chronic conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes. In fact, about half of the NIH chimpanzees are considered geriatric,” Collins explained in an Oct. 24 statement.

The agency’s decision was based on an evaluation of the chimps by a panel of NIH veterinarians that advised the agency that it would be a serious risk to the chimps’ health to move them, he said.

“Accordingly, NIH expects that these 44 chimpanzees (since down to 43) will live out the remainder of their lives at APF to ensure their safety and welfare,” Collins said. “Chimpanzees at APF have indoor/outdoor living conditions in structures called Primadomes that allow them to climb and swing. They have strong dependency on their social groups as well as close bonds with their caretakers, from whom they receive excellent care.”

Sens. Udall, Cassidy, and Heinrich view the decision as a violation of the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection Act mandating that chimpanzees live their remaining years in a chimp sanctuary.

“In addition to our general questions about the NIH’s rationale for retaining these chimpanzees that are no longer needed for biomedical research, we are concerned that the NIH’s decision may be contrary to Congress’s intent in passing the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection Act (CHIMP Act),” they wrote.

The NIH, the senators continued, has a legal duty to fulfill its commitment to relocate the chimps to the national sanctuary system. “There, these chimpanzees may live out the remainder of their lives under the supervision of caretakers with expertise in maximizing their psychological and physical wellbeing—precisely as Congress envisioned,” they wrote.

The senators then requested the NIH answer a series of questions regarding such matters as the number of staff members caring for the chimps, the facility’s ability to meet the chimps’ complex physical and psychological needs, and a description of any and all instances in which a chimp has died or has been injured during transport.