A recent report by a National Institutes of Health working group drew much attention for its groundbreaking recommendations to NIH Director Frances Collins. Outstanding among them was that the NIH retire hundreds of chimpanzees no longer needed for research, that a core group of 50 or so chimps be maintained for future research and that this population be maintained in vastly improved circumstances than these highly social, sentient creatures have traditionally been kept.
There are nearly 2,000 chimpanzees in the U.S. today: 962 are housed in research laboratories, 446 in accredited sanctuaries (like ours) and 259 in zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Another 287 languish in backyards, basements, roadside attractions, pseudo-sanctuaries, breeder/dealer compounds and entertainment trainers' facilities.
Over the past 20 years, the number of chimps in the U.S. has remained nearly constant, but their allocation has shifted dramatically. The research population has decreased by 50 percent, while the number of sanctuary residents has quadrupled. While some would like to imagine that this trend is due to moral or ethical considerations, it's rather the culmination of an effort in the biomedical research community to extricate itself from what Discover magazine writer Joseph D'Agnese memorably referred to in his 2002 article as "an embarrassment of chimpanzees."
The problem began in the late 1970s when, in an effort to better understand the relatively new HIV virus, the NIH provided monetary incentives to research facilities holding chimpanzees to produce as many as possible, as quickly as possible. Breeding commenced and populations expanded.
Unfortunately, chimpanzees turned out not to be the ideal research model the experts were hoping for. In simplistic terms, chimps didn't develop full-blown AIDS when infected with the human HIV virus.
By the early '90s, when scientists realized their error, it was too late. The chimpanzee population had exploded, and nobody knew what to do with this surplus of animals with 50-plus year life spans. Chimpanzees are notoriously expensive to maintain in captivity, especially in tightly controlled laboratory conditions. Burdened with hundreds of costly research subjects for whom there was simply no work, several chimp labs made plans to shut their doors.
The first of these was New York University's Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates. It's closing left 200 chimps in need of long-term care. Normally, these animals would have been shifted to other research facilities. But labs didn't need them, zoos didn't want them, and their histories made sending them to Africa impossible.
Word quickly spread through the sanctuary community that alternative placement was being considered. At the time, there were fewer than 50 chimpanzees in a couple of U.S. sanctuaries, but the opportunity to facilitate an exodus of this magnitude was irresistible. The scramble was on.
In the end, nearly 100 chimps made it to various sanctuaries throughout the U.S. and Canada. Most facilities, like ours, were only half-finished when the new residents arrived. Nevertheless, this massive retirement effort was deemed a success and set an important precedent.
(For those of us in the sanctuary community, the celebration was bittersweet. It was hard not to wonder about the less fortunate: the other 100 chimps who went on to further research.)
The LEMSIP collaboration triggered an avalanche of sorts, and as more labs closed and divested themselves of these long-lived liabilities, sanctuary populations quickly increased.
Fast-forward to today: All U.S. sanctuaries are at or over capacity, and the most pressing question facing sanctuaries is no longer "Can we get them out of research?" but "How are we going to raise the money to ensure the future care of these chimps for decades to come?"
Looking back, it's easy to spot an unintended consequence of the unfortunate precedent set in the New York lab's effort.
In our eagerness to rescue these chimps from a dismal future in research, none of us thought or dared to ask the retiring institution for support, or even for transportation costs.
Thankfully, in ensuing years, sanctuary directors have gotten smarter. At least we've learned to ask, but the answer is always the same: "If you want them, you can have them, but there's no funding available for transportation, housing costs or their future care."
Certainly, the recommendations contained in the recent NIH report represent a huge step forward for the last country in the Western world allowing biomedical research on chimpanzees.
The obvious question now is: Where will the funding come from to implement these grand plans in the event that the NIH director decides to put them into effect? Will history continue to repeat itself, or will the NIH agree to write the huge check necessary to house and care for these retirees for the rest of their long lives?