New hope for 26 chimps who deserve life in a sanctuary, not a lab

New hope for 26 chimps who deserve life in a sanctuary, not a lab

By Kitty Block and Sara Amundson

Twenty-six chimpanzees at a laboratory  in New Mexico have a stronger shot at spending the rest of their lives in  a sanctuary now that the National Institutes of Health has dropped its appeal in a lawsuit focused on their future.  

We filed the case in 2021, charging that  NIH illegally refused to retire federally owned chimpanzees formerly used in research to Chimp Haven,   the federal sanctuary in Louisiana. In December 2022, a federal judge agreed, finding that NIH’s decision to deny sanctuary retirement to dozens of chimpanzees violated the federal Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection (CHIMP) Act. NIH recently abandoned its appeal against the judge’s ruling, allowing the judgement to stand. Now the animals have a chance to live where they can enjoy a more natural setting and appropriate enrichment and care, as well as a chance to bond with one another.  

We are encouraged by this development, but still cautious to rejoice, as there is a long history of stalling, prevarication and politics, one that pits the interests of these animals against those of institutions and corporations with a financially lucrative government contract.

In 2015, NIH originally embraced the idea of sending all federally owned or supported chimpanzees, and there were nearly 400 of   them, to Chimp Haven. Following our long-running efforts (including our successful legal petition to grant captive chimpanzees the highest protections under the U.S. Endangered Species Act)  NIH announced in 2015 that it was no longer supporting biomedical research on chimps and that it planned to move all federal chimpanzees to Chimp Haven, the sanctuary designated for this purpose.

But a veterinarian for Charles River Laboratories claimed that many of the chimps were too fragile to be moved and should instead spend the rest of their lives at the very laboratory in which they were subjected to invasive experiments. 

This recommendation made no sense: Since Chimp Haven was founded in 1995, hundreds of chimpanzees of all ages and health conditions have moved there without a single death occurring during transport. Moreover, elderly chimpanzees have thrived there, including one named Grandma, who was deemed to be fragile before she arrived in 2005, yet flourished there for 10 years, reaching the age of 62. Another success story is that of Ladybird, who moved to Chimp Haven when she was 55 and also lived to be 62.

Why would the veterinarian, therefore, be so cautious? Perhaps because Charles River Laboratories, a multi-billion-dollar biomedical company, receives a  taxpayer-funded, government contract to warehouse the chimpanzees at the laboratory in New Mexico, known as Alamogordo Primate Facility. 
Then, in 2019, NIH made the shocking announcement that it had adopted the veterinarian’s recommendation. None of the remaining chimps at  the New Mexico laboratory would move to sanctuary. NIH cited an internal review that concurred with Charles River’s assessment. Notably, the NIH review panel was made up of three NIH veterinarians who never saw—much less examined—any of the chimpanzees or the living conditions at Alamogordo Primate Facility in person. 

This decision robbed the chimpanzees—who had already endured decades of trauma and pain—of the life they deserved and had been promised. It also meant that they would likely be condemned to countless more years—possibly decades—inside a barren and sterile facility instead of at Chimp Haven,    where they would have access to large outdoor areas, form friendships in large social groups and spend their days playing and exploring.  

Keeping the chimps warehoused in the very laboratory that was the source of so much of their suffering was not only inhumane and unjustifiable but financially irresponsible. (Warehousing the chimpanzees at the Alamogordo Primate Facility costs taxpayers more than twice as much as it would cost to provide them a superior life at Chimp Haven.) More than 150,000 of our supporters agreed that this decision was unacceptable, contacting NIH to demand that the agency reverse its decision; when NIH didn’t do so, we sued.  

We hope the dropped appeal in the lawsuit  marks a genuine turn of approach at NIH. There was some sign of this during the confirmation process for the agency’s new director, Dr. Monica Bertagnolli, last fall; she indicated she supports sanctuary for the remaining chimpanzees at the New Mexico facility and that she is “committed to carrying out the goals of the CHIMP Act to ensure that these chimpanzees get the sanctuary and care they deserve” as part of the hearing record. While Chimp Haven is currently near capacity, it is willing to build for intake of these 26 chimpanzees.   

Years of delay have meant that 18 chimpanzees who could have enjoyed sanctuary life have died waiting for their chance to leave the New Mexico laboratory. It is heartbreaking that NIH’s foot-dragging cost these individuals the chance to enjoy the end of their lives. 

Now is the time for NIH to comply with its legal obligations to give these 26 chimpanzees the chance to experience the sanctuary retirement they have long been denied and that they unquestioningly deserve.

Kitty Block is CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. 

New hope for 26 chimps who deserve life in a sanctuary, not a lab

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