NIH retiring 50 reserve chimpanzees

Pumpkin is a retired chimpanzee living at the Alamogordo Primate Facility in New Mexico. NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH

The National Institutes of Health announced that it is ending its chimpanzee research program and will retire all of the agency’s remaining chimpanzees. The news comes two and a half years after the NIH announced plans for a dramatic reduction in the number of chimpanzees used for biomedical research. In 2013, the NIH retired the majority of its chimpanzees and kept 50 in reserve for research needs. The new move will retire these 50 chimpanzees.

“We reached a point where … the need for research (using chimpanzees) has essentially shrunk to zero,” said NIH Director Francis Collins in an interview with Nature. “I think this is the natural next step of what has been a very thoughtful five-year process of trying to come to terms with the benefits and risks of trying to perform research with these very special animals.”

The original set of retirements came after a 2011 report by the National Academies made a series of recommendations for improving the treatment of research chimpanzees. Since the 2013 announcement, the number of requests to use chimpanzees for research has dropped so significantly that the NIH decided the maintenance required for the remaining 50 chimpanzees was not worth the price.

A rule change by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also may have played a part in the NIH’s decision. Until mid-2015, wild chimpanzees were listed as an endangered species, but a loophole exempted captive chimpanzees from protected status. In June, the USFWS closed this loophole and listed captive chimpanzees as endangered along with their wild brethren. This ruling does not eliminate the possibility of conducting research on chimpanzees, but it does add new rigorous requirements for justifying new chimpanzee research, including a determination that any research would have to benefit wild chimpanzees.

While the NIH has committed to retiring its entire chimpanzee colony, the speed with which retirement will be accomplished is not clear. First, only a portion of the chimpanzees slated for retirement in 2013 have been moved to sanctuary facilities. Second, Chimp Haven in Louisiana, the only federally accredited facility to handle retired research chimpanzees, is nearing capacity. While the NIH no longer owns chimpanzees for research purposes, the agency will still pay for chimpanzee facilities for several years until the entire U.S. research chimpanzee colony is moved to retirement locations.

Photo of Chris Pickett Chris Pickett is a policy analyst at the ASBMB.