In the latest step towards shrinking chimpanzee research in the United States, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced on 18 December a plan to retire its stock of 113 research animals from the New Iberia Research Center (NIRC) in Louisiana to Chimp Haven, a federally funded sanctuary in Keithsville, Louisiana.
“These animals have made important contributions to research to improve human health, but new technologies have reduced the need for their continued use in research,” said NIH director Francis Collins in a press statement, echoing the findings of an NIH-solicited report by the US Institute of Medicine (IOM) last year.
Collins declared the NIRC chimpanzees ineligible for research in September, but at the time said that the NIH planned to move only ten animals to Chimp Haven owing to limitations on space there, as well as a lack of NIH funds for new construction at the sanctuary. The remaining chimpanzees were slated for transfer to the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio, one of two other US centres that conducts NIH-funded chimpanzee research.
Although the NIH had pledged that the NIRC animals would be off limits for invasive research at the San Antonio facility, animal activists pushed for the transfer of more chimpanzees to the Louisiana sanctuary, which carries out no such research at all. Chimp Haven is limited to non-invasive behavioural studies.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has pledged to raise US$500,000 towards the $2.3-million construction project needed to move all the NIRC chimpanzees to Chimp Haven. Additional fundraising will be undertaken by the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, an independent non-profit organization that supports NIH work.
Wayne Pacelle, president of the HSUS, called the new plan “a ray of light for captive chimpanzees”.
The transition is expected to take 12–15 months, with half of the animals moving into existing structures at Chimp Haven over the next four months and the rest following as construction is completed.
Although the HSUS and the NIH are collaborating on moving the NIRC chimpanzees, the two groups continue to hold opposing views on animal research in general.
“When people can join together to solve a problem, it doesn’t mean they agree on all issues,” said Kathy Hudson, NIH deputy director of science, outreach and policy, in a press conference. Hudson added that recent decisions to scale back chimpanzee research have no bearing on NIH support for other animal studies.
The NIH continues to fund invasive research on 115 chimpanzees at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute and 167 at the Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research in Bastrop, Texas, according to an October census. A working group within the agency is now re-evaluating all NIH-supported chimpanzee projects in light of proposed IOM standards for scientific necessity, and is expected to report its findings on 22 January.
“When we receive those recommendations, we’ll have a thorough review of animals available,” said James Anderson, NIH deputy director for programme coordination, planning and strategic initiatives.