The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced today that it will retire to sanctuary nearly all of its research chimpanzees — about 310 animals — leaving a rump colony of up to 50 animals available to researchers who can clear high ethical and regulatory hurdles for using them.
The announcement marks the end of a protracted process, kicked off by a landmark Institute of Medicine report, during which NIH-funded chimpanzee research has come under increasing scrutiny. Separately, the US Fish and Wildlife Service last week said it would declare captive chimps endangered, which also would make the animals tougher to access for biomedical research. The United States is the only major country that still funds invasive chimpanzee research.
Francis Collins, the NIH director, called today’s decision a “real watershed”. “I am confident that greatly reducing their use in biomedical research is scientifically sound and the right thing to do,” he said. The decision is outlined in greater detail here.
The NIH said that it would accept all of the recommendations made by an agency working group in January for disposition of the 310 chimpanzees that it now plans to retire, with one exception: in defining appropriate housing going forward, the working group had recommended 1,000 square feet (93 square metres) of space per animal.
“We did not feel there was adequate scientific evidence” to support that requirement, Collins said. He added that the NIH would consult experts and do further review before determining the space allotment that it will require per animal. Under current rules, lab animals can be confined in as little as 25 square feet (2.3 square metres) of space.
The NIH will not breed any of the 50 remaining research animals and will reassess the need for that rump colony in five years, Collins said.
The physical placement of the retiring animals, and which ones to use in the residual research colony, remains to be worked out by the agency over the coming months and years. Chimp Haven in Louisiana, the only existing federal sanctuary, is near capacity, although it is undertaking a private fundraising campaign to allow expansion.
The problem of supporting the retired animals in the future is compounded by a US$30-million cap on their support by the NIH that was written into law in the Chimp Act of 2000. That spending has now reached $29.2 million, says Kathy Hudson, NIH deputy director for science, outreach and policy. She says that the agency is working with Congress to amend the act to allow for future funding, and anticipates needing a new $3 million in 2014.
Collins said that six of nine existing invasive experiments supported by the agency will be ended. He would not specify which ones, ahead of notifying the scientists involved. Directors of the NIH-supported chimpanzee research centres were not immediately available for comment.
Animal-rights groups celebrated most aspects of the announcement. The Humane Society of the United States called it “monumental”. “Nearly all current NIH-funded invasive research will be phased out…and the barrier to new invasive research will be very high,” says John Pippin, director of medical affairs for the animal advocacy group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington DC.
However, chimp research opponents decried the NIH’s decision not to immediately adopt the requirement of 1,000 square feet of space per animal. Stacy Lopresti-Goodman, a psychologist at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, works with chimpanzees at the Save the Chimps sanctuary in Florida. She says that groups of 12–25 chimpanzees live there, with an island of 3–5 acres for each group. She says that, even if the NIH abides by the new recommendation, the 50 chimpanzees in the NIH’s scaled-down research colony would be confined to just over 1 acre of space. “It is frankly outrageous that the NIH suggests the conditions for chimpanzees locked in laboratories are in any way comparable to what they are provided in sanctuaries,” she says.
Lopresti-Goodman was responding to a comment by James Anderson, NIH deputy director for program coordination, planning and strategic initiatives, who described the environments in the research centres and sanctuaries as “not tremendously different”.