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Chimp Haven: Research Center Retires Endangered Chimpanzees

Nov 20, 2015 12:39 PM EST
Retired Chimps
The U.S. National Institutes of Health plans to retire 50 remaining research chimpanzees.
(Photo : Flickr: Afrika Force)

The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) has announced plans to cease all research involving chimpanzees, and the 50 remaining individuals in federal custody will be sent to a sanctuary for retirement.

"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," Francis Collins, NIH director, said in an interview with Nature. "We reached a point where in that five years the need for research has essentially shrunk to zero. "

Two and a half years ago, the NIH began phasing out most of its biomedical research using chimps, which are considered to be humans' closest living relative. At this time the agency retired about 310 chimpanzees, and 50 "reserve" animals were kept for "cases where the research meets a very high bar, such as public health emergencies."

However, the NIH has only received one application since 2013, which was later withdrawn. Additionally, the animals were recently listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services - a status that requires an additional research permit, none of which have been sought since.

"It's clear that chimpanzees are not a needed resource in the biomedical research world," Stephen Ross, an animal behavior specialist who served on the 2013 advisory panel, and who works at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Illinois, added.

The next step for the retired chimps is finding sanctuary. While many sanctuaries are unable to accept research chimps or are nearly full, 20 of the NIH-owned chimps will first be transferred from the Southwest National Primate Research Center in San Antonio, Texas, to Chimp Haven, which is a government-funded sanctuary in Louisiana. Collins added that the agency is still working to find the best way to house retired chimps.

The NIH said it will continue to use other non-human primates for research.

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