WILMORE — A decision by the National Institutes of Health to begin retiring federally owned chimpanzees used for biomedical research means that some of those animals might come to the Primate Rescue Center in Jessamine County — provided that the issue of funding can be resolved.
The issue was discussed last week among members of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance, a California-based group that held a conference in Lexington. The 55 or so conference attendees visited the Primate Rescue Center near Wilmore, founded in 1987 and home to 11 chimpanzees.
The NIH, the nation's medical research agency, announced in June that it would retire 310 chimpanzees to sanctuaries. The animals were used for research involving hepatitis C and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
New scientific methods and technologies rendered the apes' use in research "largely unnecessary," NIH director Dr. Francis Collins said in June.
"Their likeness to humans has made them uniquely valuable for certain types of research but also demands greater justification for their use," Collins said. "After extensive consideration with expert guidance of many, I am confident that greatly reducing their use in biomedical research is scientifically sound and the right thing to do."
The issue now is whether there will be money available to build enclosures for these animals, said April Truitt, founder of the Jessamine County sanctuary. She will take over as chairwoman of sanctuary alliance in January.
That issue will be a top priority for Truitt because the government might begin transferring apes to sanctuaries by the end of 2014. But the Primate Rescue Center and the other seven sanctuaries that belong to the alliance can't take any more apes; there are almost 500 apes in those sanctuaries.
"We're at capacity now," Truitt said.
Congress limited how much the NIH can spend on caring for chimps in the sanctuary system. Negotiations are underway between the government and the alliance to shift the money that NIH spent housing the animals in research centers to supporting their care in sanctuaries.
NIH already is paying for the care of chimps in laboratories, said Jen Feuerstein, current chairwoman of the alliance and director of Save the Chimps, a Florida sanctuary.
"It's really just a matter of diverting the funds that are being used to care for chimps in laboratories to the care of chimps in sanctuaries," Feuerstein said.
"We've said from the beginning when these discussions started that we will take them all provided they come with funding for construction and for lifetime care," Truitt said. Chimps can live to be 60.
Construction of a building and an adjoining enclosure where the apes can romp at the Wilmore sanctuary cost $800,000. Today it would cost "probably about $1 million," Truitt said.
On the other hand, transferring the federally owned chimps to private sanctuaries will save taxpayer dollars, Truitt said.
"The sanctuaries can afford to care for these animals at a lower cost per day than the federal government can," Truitt said. "We don't have the layers of bureaucracy."
For example, where individual apes might have to be isolated, the sanctuaries can let the animals live in outdoor groups.
In addition, the sanctuaries are nonprofit organizations that raise a portion of their budgets through private contributions.
Alliance members interviewed last week said they welcomed the opportunity to take care of the chimps.
"I think we all see it as a challenge that we can meet," said Cathy Willis Spraetz of Chimp Haven, a Louisiana sanctuary that has the only federal contract to house chimps.
"For them to languish in cages in labs for decades and not have the opportunity to just be a chimpanzee, that's what makes it so important."