Imagine you’re innocent but imprisoned. You’ve been subjected to painful procedures and had your children taken. Imagine one day your sentence is overturned. You are to be released. But the warden announces, “Hold off on celebrating. It may take 10 years to get you out.” Hope would crash, and if you were of a certain age or in uncertain health, there’s the possibility you’ll die still in jail.
NIH’s announced plan for when, where, and how NIH owned/ supported chimpanzees will be sent to sanctuary, has left some of us asking—“What’s the hold up?”
NEAVS applauds NIH for finally ending the use of all chimpanzees in biomedical research; however, that action came late—years after scientifically advanced nation’s had already done so—despite since the 1990’s, the use of chimpanzees in U.S. research rapidly declined. NEAVS’ 2008 systematic review demonstrated researchers knew chimpanzees were a flawed, even dangerous model for biomedical research to benefit humans. However, chimpanzees continued to be held under the pretense of “just in case.” In reality, they were kept because each chimpanzee ‘housed and maintained’ provided labs with lucrative federal funding. As a result, chimpanzees languished when they could have been retired to sanctuary—enjoying fresh produce, trees to climb, overhead runs, open sky corrals— even islands in the sun.
Reviewing NIH’s timeline, we ask: Is NIH accountable for wasting time for the chimpanzees?
- April 2006: NEAVS’ Project R&R is launched.
- April 2008: Great Ape Protection Act is introduced.
- December 2011: Institute of Medicine concluded "… biomedical research use of chimpanzees is not necessary…"
- June 2013: NIH announced it will retire all but 50 of its chimpanzees.
- November 2013: CHIMP Act Amendment removed a spending cap and appropriated nearly $60,000,000 for retirement.
- June 2015: U.S. FWS up-listed captive chimpanzees to endangered status protections.
- November 2015: NIH announced it will no longer support biomedical research on chimpanzees, and all NIH-chimpanzees are eligible for retirement.
- August 2016: NIH announced its retirement plan for over the next decade.
Since NIH’s 2013 announcement (though Congress provided further funding), NIH has shown little strategy or progress. Slow bureaucracy combined with pressure from labs opposing the release of chimpanzees pushed the pause button. Labs squabbled to retain chimpanzees, more chimpanzees died, and more reached the age where tomorrow becomes less certain.
Instead, had NIH designated construction funds as the CHIMP Act mandated, and those that lobbied for additional funding made certain NIH supported such language in the Amendment, we would not be where we are. It is now up to our federal sanctuary, and private donors, to fund construction. Labs continue to benefit from NIH grants to keep chimpanzees, while the financial burden of “if you build it they will come” falls on the federal sanctuary and public.
An unholy alliance between NIH and labs enriches those labs with our tax dollars while chimpanzees wait. Labs were provided construction grants and are in possession of structures and other materials, which are still the property of NIH. Yet NIH seems unwilling to recall and transfer these costly supplies to federal sanctuary.
When I read that NIH’s time considerations are done for the well-being of the chimpanzees—I think: a half-truth at best. The delay is business as usual, for which many chimpanzees will pay with their lives. They will die in the labs where they were used never to know a new life. It’ll be too late.
Instead, since 2000, NIH should have been honoring the CHIMP Act—retiring dozens of chimpanzees each year by deciding who was no longer needed and eligible for retirement. But, NIH left that decision to the labs while financially rewarding them for every chimpanzee they held with generous per diem, per chimp, tax-payer dollars.
Dear Dr. Collins,
As the Director of NIH who has done much to end the use of chimpanzees in U.S. research and get them out of labs and into sanctuary and who holds this accomplishment as part of your legacy… what you have done is not enough. If chimpanzees must wait up to 10 years to get out, many, perhaps most, will not. Your timeline puts us to 2027. The Institute of Medicine projected by 2037 the federal chimpanzee research population will "largely cease to exist”. They are running out of time. Not a one should be denied one day less of their overdue release and restitution.
NIH must use its dollars to support accelerated construction and staff expansion. Allow a team from NIH, labs committed to the chimpanzees’ release and the expert chimpanzee sanctuary community, to go into labs and evaluate the health, well-being, group dynamics, and needs of your chimpanzees. Do not let the fox continue to guard this hen house. And through this process begin triaged retirement where those in most need will, along with their group, be the first transferred. Keep the successes of previous models at hand, where under hard conditions and dire timelines, sanctuaries sprung to accommodate an exodus of hundreds of chimpanzees from the Coulston Foundation, Buckshire, and the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates. ASK THEM HOW THEY DID IT with time and budget restraints overridden only by the burning passion to get those chimpanzees to sanctuary. And, reduce the “indirect” dollars every lab can spend on anything it wants from NIH’s housing and maintenance grants and instead impose a 25% cost on every lab now holding chimpanzees (as Chimp Haven contributes!) belonging to NIH. In other words, de-incentivize labs keeping chimpanzees and spark the same burning desire those of us on the chimpanzees’ side have—to get them out NOW. They have already lost three precious years. You must commit NIH to triaged release, with family and friends, accelerated building, and emptying the labs. No further debate. No labs bad-mouthing U.S. sanctuaries when it is their worn and battered, sick and old chimpanzees those very sanctuaries are trying desperately to keep comfortable and, dare I say, happy!
NEAVS is happy to partner in plans that will work—because we will push lab/NIH politics and lab financial gains aside. And, we will back our suggestions with data garnered from our autopsy, economic and other studies. Facts and the best interest of the chimpanzees will be the path.
Theodora Capaldo, Ed.D.