In good news for animal right advocates, the National Institutes of Health announced yesterday that it was retiring the last 50 chimpanzees that it has been holding in captivity for research purposes.
The NIH had decided to end invasive research on our closest genetic relatives back in 2013 and retire most of the 360 or so animals it held at its various research labs, but it held on to 50 individuals as a sort of emergency reserve, just in case they were needed to test out solutions for some kind of medical or public health crisis.
Photo by Ryan Summers
But yesterday the agency officially announced that these remaining chimpanzees, too, would be freed. “It’s time to say we’ve reached the point in the US where invasive research on chimpanzees is no longer something that makes sense,” NIH director Dr. Francis Collins said while announcing the decision, according to an Associated Press report.
Animal welfare activists, of course, welcomed the decision. “Experimenting on chimpanzees is ethically, scientifically, and legally indefensible and we are relieved and happy that NIH is fulfilling its promise to finally end this dark legacy,” Jared Goodman, laboratory investigations director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, told the Journal. PETA has for years been pushing the NIH to end research on primates.
Though the announcement came as a bit of a surprise to some, it wasn’t totally unexpected. There’s been a growing movement in recent years against using animals in invasive research, especially primates, elephants, dolphins and whales — species whose unusually high level of intelligence and self-awareness have been established by a growing body of scientific research. (Read our cover story “Animals are Persons Too” about the movements to get certain species of animals recognized as “nonhuman persons”)
“I think that there was a lot of pressure from the animal advocacy NGOs, as well as from some members of the scientific community who said that this was not a fair way to continue. I’m sure there were a lot of things going on behind the scenes to put pressure on the NIH to release the chimpanzees,” said biopsychologist Lori Marino, founder of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy and science director of the Nonhuman Rights Project. One of big factors in the decision, Marino believes, was the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision in June this year to grant all chimpanzees, including those in captivity, endangered species status. “That has played a large role in ensuring that all chimpanzees are treated the same way,” she said.
The USFWS decision, which went into effect on September 14, did away with the legal distinction between wild and captive chimpanzees, who until then were listed as “threatened,” a classification that offered them fewer protections. The new status adds more restrictions on experimenting on chimpanzees, and on buying or selling them. Permits for research using the apes will be granted only if it is deemed to be for the benefit of the survival of chimpanzees in the wild.
The NIH announcement, however, does not mean that the great apes will be released from their cages right away or that they will be “free” in the true sense of the term. First off, they can’t be returned to their natural habitat in the wilds of Africa. Many of them were born in captivity after the NIH increased chimpanzee breeding for HIV research in the 1980s (a program that ended in 2012), which means they know no other world than the labs they have grown up in. The rest have been disconnected from their homes for so long that they probably no longer have the skills needed to survive on their own in the wild.
The 50 primates, therefore, have to be rehoused in sanctuaries deemed “acceptable” by the federal government; sanctuaries that are part of National Chimpanzee Sanctuary System that was set up following the establishment of the CHIMP Act in 2000, which said that the government had the “responsibility and moral obligation” to provide a lifetime of shelter and care for chimpanzees used in federal research. The problem is, most of the sanctuaries that are qualified to accept these chimpanzees are nearly full. Which means the NIH still has to find sanctuaries that can take the primates in.
The decision also doesn’t offer relief to some 900 other captive chimpanzees in the US, who are privately owned by labs, the entertainment industry, or are kept as pets.
“It’s clear that we have to keep the pressure on,” Marino said. “All in all this is a good sign, it’s the right thing to do for the chimpanzees. Obviously we have a long way to go for other primates.”
Needless to say, scientists who use chimpanzees for their research are unhappy with the decision. Peter Walsh, a disease ecologist who has been working on developing an Ebola vaccine for wild chimpanzees, is cited in Nature as saying that it further narrows the possibilities for conservation research. Walsh accused the NIH of cutting and running the first time it was ever “asked to give anything back to the wild chimps.”
Animal advocates however, call such arguments self-serving.
“Yes, Ebola is a risk to chimpanzees,” Marino says, “but our species’ activities are a much greater risk to them. This recent decision is, ironically, one way our species is indeed ‘giving back’ to the primate relatives we’ve so badly abused in the biomedical research industry.”