The U.S. National Institutes of Health has been advised to significantly curtail research involving chimpanzees by retiring most of the 450 animals it funds or supports, leaving only a few dozen for research. The retired animals would go to sanctuaries.
The recommendation comes in a report by a council of external advisers to the NIH that culminates two years of debate about the use of chimpanzees in U.S. scientific research.
For years, many scientists and animal advocates have argued that the use of chimpanzees in research in outdated and unnecessary.
“When we looked at the data, we saw that chimpanzees were not being used in research but rather were languishing in labs at an enormous taxpayer expense and at an expense to the quality of their lives,” said Dr. Theodora Capaldo, president and executive director of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society, which has long campaigned for the release of chimpanzees in U.S. labs. “We saw a rapid decline in the use of chimpanzees and that science itself was abandoning the chimpanzee as a model.”
The suggestions in the 86-page report on paring down the chimpanzee program include retiring government-owned chimpanzees currently in laboratories, substantially decreasing the number of government-funded grants involving lab chimps and eliminating chimpanzee breeding for research.
“This is a historic step forward, and these experts are reinforcing what the public has been asking for, which is to move away from chimpanzee experimentation and move toward retiring chimpanzees to sanctuary,” said Kathleen Conlee, vice-president of animal research issues at the Humane Society of the United States.
The report also calls for an end to half of ongoing experiments involving chimpanzees and sets a high threshold for future experiments, including vetting of NIH-approved proposals by an independent committee.
It also urges that within the next five years the remaining 50 chimpanzees kept for research be housed in better facilities with room for climbing, access to outdoors in all weather, space of at least 93 square metres per chimp and a minimum of seven animals per facility.
“Not one lab meets the standards they are urging in the report,” said Conlee. “And they are urging a fairly quick timetable for seeing those standards implemented.”
The recommendations will be open for public input until March, after which the NIH will decide if it will put them into effect. But the government agency has been leaning toward ending the practice since December 2011, when the Institute of Medicine, a non-partisan advisory body, said current research use of chimpanzees is “largely unnecessary.”
That comes as no surprise to animal advocates.
“When we looked at the data, we saw that chimpanzees were not being used in research but rather were languishing in labs at an enormous taxpayer expense and at an expense to the quality of their lives,” said Dr. Theodora Capaldo, president and executive director of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society, which has long campaigned for the release of chimpanzees in U.S. labs.
“We saw a rapid decline in the use of chimpanzees and that science itself was abandoning the chimpanzee as a model.”
However, not everyone is pleased with the recommendations. The Texas Biomedical Research Institute issued a statement saying the recommendations will “severely limit the future use of chimpanzees in biomedical research and that will slow urgently needed medical advances necessary to prevent and treat human diseases that afflict millions of Americans as well as hundreds of millions of people living in other countries.”
According to Conlee, there are still about 350 privately owned chimpanzees in the U.S. that are not affected by the recommendations and can still be used for research.
If the recommendations are approved, the challenge will be to move the NIH’s 400 chimpanzees to sanctuaries across the U.S. The report estimates it will take three to five years to see the animals successfully moved. The government will be responsible for paying for most of the maintenance of the animals, although the sanctuaries are also required to raise a share of money for maintenance and expansion.
Conlee believes the NIH is committed to this change in attitude.
“They have made many comments in the press that they anticipate a significant decrease in chimpanzee use and the need to put them in sanctuary,” she said. “So I think they have been signalling that they will embrace these recommendations.”