NIH to Retire the Last of Their Research Chimps

A colony of former research lab apes, now in retirement. Photo: Zoom Dosso/AFP/Getty Images

The last 50 chimpanzees held at the National Institutes of Health for medical research will soon be dispersed to wildlife sanctuaries across the country. NIH director Francis Collins said the institute had “no further justification for the 50 chimpanzees to continue to be kept available for invasive biomedical research.” The decision is one in a series of steps away from chimp-related research the Institute has taken in the last few years.

As recently as 2013, there were 451 N.I.H. research chips.

The N.I.H. had planned to retain this colony of 50, but no more.

The Institute of Medicine has conducted a series of studies over the past five years, commissioned by the NIH, concluding that a reduction in chimp research is feasible. The 2010 review found that “while the chimpanzee has been a valuable animal model in past research, most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary.” The review’s conclusions are seemingly backed by the trickle in demand to use the chimps for experimental purposes. Since 2010, the institute has received only one application to conduct research with one of the remaining chimps.

Meanwhile, one PETA member protested, distributing this letter to his entire neighborhood. “I am writing to share some disturbing information about one of your neighbors,” the letter begins, describing the “cruel psychological experiments” Collins conducts on baby chimps, while blasting out his home address and phone number. The author of the letter, Alka Chandna, told Science that the means justify the ends, declaring that “it’s similar to having a sexual predator in your neighborhood.”

Probably a more important factor was the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision earlier this year to designate the chimpanzee as “endangered.” (Globally, the number of chimps has diminished from 1 million in the 1990s to roughly 150,000.) Among other things, the classification requires a permit for any research project that might “harm or endanger” chimps.

Recent efforts by some legal scholars have argued for chimp protections by filing a writ habeas corpus — a legal mechanism against unlawful imprisonment — which would require a court to recognize a chimp as a legal entity and not a “thing,” as one judge recently found the primates to be.

The remaining chimps will be transferred in a manner that is “ethically appropriate,” ensuring that certain social structures among the primates are kept intact during the cross-country moves. It will take several years, all told, to complete the redistribution.

The Humane Society of the United States, for its part, is ecstatic. “We are overjoyed by this decision.”

NIH Will Free Their Chimps