Op-Ed: Hooray! Hundreds of Research Chimps Allowed to Retire


It’s been five years since The Humane Society of the United States released an undercover investigation of New Iberia Research Center—the world’s largest chimpanzee laboratory—offering an unprecedented look behind closed laboratory doors. Now, we’re approaching the end of chimpanzee research, with focus turning to getting them out of labs and into sanctuary.

The undercover video showed deplorable conditions, chimpanzees throwing themselves against cages, screaming frantically, inflicting self-harm; and revealed animals forced to endure a life of anxiety and misery.

The investigation exposed the plight of Sterling, torn from his mother at birth and experimented on, subjected to hepatitis C infection, hundreds of blood draws, countless liver biopsies and other distressing procedures. He suffered from depression, bouts of excessive weight loss and frequent self-mutilation. He died at NIRC at the age of 24, less than half the lifespan for a chimpanzee.

The investigation revived memories of the years that I worked in a primate research lab, and it looked all too familiar.

The United States is the last developed country in the world to conduct invasive research on chimpanzees. Though it’s too late for Sterling, the prospects for more than 900 other chimpanzees remaining in U.S. laboratories today are more optimistic.

Just this week, the National Institutes of Health announced the adoption of recommendations offered by scientific experts earlier this year: To substantially cut government funding for chimpanzee research, and retire the vast majority of the 360 federally-owned chimpanzees to sanctuary as soon as possible. The expert group was convened by NIH following a 2011 report by the Institute of Medicine that concluded chimpanzee research is “largely unnecessary.”

Late last year, NIH signaled a move away from chimpanzee research by announcing that the 110 government-owned chimps at NIRC would be made “permanently ineligible” for research and moved to Chimp Haven, a sanctuary in Louisiana. The NIH director called this “a significant step in winding down NIH’s investment in chimpanzee research,” and noted there’s great sensitivity to the special nature of these remarkable animals, our closest relatives.

An emotional video captured the first group from NIRC, led by a 53-year-old chimp named Julius, as they were first introduced to their Chimp Haven habitat. Witnessing these moments was a dream come true for me.

But our work isn’t done. We’re working with Congress to ensure NIH can continue to provide funding needed to care for these animals at the sanctuary. Chimp Haven provides superior welfare standards at a lower cost to taxpayers than housing chimpanzees in barren labs – saving millions per year. President Obama demonstrated his support in the budget he submitted to Congress.

Chimp Haven also needs private funds since the government typically only provides 75 percent of care costs and 90 percent of construction costs. We hope the public will contribute to this great cause.

I won’t rest until the last government-owned chimpanzee sets foot on fresh grass and can look up at the open sky—just like Julius and his companions—because it’s the right thing to do for the chimpanzees, and for the taxpayers.

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