- NIH director Francis Collins announced the decision in an email to the agency’s administrators on November 16.
- 50 "reserve" chimps being kept by the NIH are being sent to sanctuaries and any NIH funding that is supporting other biomedical research using chimpanzees will be phased out.
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed all chimps under the Endangered Species Act last June.
The chimpanzee research program at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) is over.
The NIH significantly curtailed the program in 2013, retiring more than 300 chimpanzees but keeping a reserve of 50 for use in certain circumstances, such as a public health emergency.
Now, those 50 chimps are being sent to sanctuaries and any NIH funding that is supporting other biomedical research using chimpanzees will be phased out. NIH director Francis Collins announced the decision in an email to the agency’s administrators on November 16, according to 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,” Collins told Nature. “We reached a point where in that five years the need for research has essentially shrunk to zero. “
Stephen Ross, an animal behavior specialist at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Illinois who served on the internal advisory panel in 2013 that recommended the NIH retire most of its research chimps, said that the plan all along had been to test whether or not researchers actually required chimpanzees for their work.
The NIH has only received one application to use the chimps in research since 2013, and even that application was later withdrawn, Nature reports. “It’s clear that chimpanzees are not a needed resource in the biomedical research world,” Ross said.
Of course, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) made it even harder to use chimps for research when it listed them under the Endangered Species Act last June, preventing scientists from performing invasive research on the animals unless the FWS determined that the work would benefit chimpanzees in the wild. The FWS has not received any requests for research exemptions since the endangered-species protection took effect, Nature reported.
The NIH has sent several chimpanzees to a sanctuary in Louisiana called Chimp Haven in the past, and reportedly plans to retire all other research chimps there as well, though the process could take years.
Animal rights activists were quick to applaud the NIH’s decision.
“When in 2013 they announced they would release the majority of chimps, some people focused on the 50 that would be left behind,” Kathleen Conlee, vice president for animal research at the Humane Society of the United States, told the New York Times. “And I said, ‘Don’t worry, someday we will get them protected.’ And today, we did.”