Sammy Nickalls
November 20, 2015 8:53 am

Great news in the world of animal rights, folks: Chimpanzees are finally being released from scientific research. Nature recently revealed that the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) is getting rid of its chimp program completely.

On November 16th, NIH director Francis Collins sent an email to administrators announcing that the 50 chimps owned by NIH will be sent to sanctuaries to retire. Collins also said they will be implementing a plan to phase out NIH support for chimps that aren’t owned but supported by the organization. This announcement comes after the organization retired over 300 chimps in 2013, maintaining the 50 or so “reserve” chimps which could “only be used in cases where the research meets a very high bar, such as public-health emergencies,” according to Nature. The organization has only received one application since 2013 to use chimps in research, and that application was later withdrawn.

“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.”

So what will happen to the chimps now? According to Collins, the NIH will be transferring 20 NIH-owned chimps to Chimp Haven, a Louisiana sanctuary; then, 139 chimps at a Texas facility will be transferred as well. The agency is still in the midst of figuring out what to do with agency-supported (but not agency-owned) chimps. One issue is that most sanctuaries don’t accept research chimps, and although Chimp Haven does, it’s almost full (though it was able to immediately open 25 spots for NIH).

Naturally, there are people that aren’t exactly happy with the change — namely, animal research advocates. “Given NIH’s primary mission to protect public health, it seems surprising,” Frankie Trull, president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research in Washington DC, told Nature. “I don’t understand the decision of ‘we’re going to take that resource away forever’.”

However, Stephen Ross of the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, an animal behavior specialist who was involved in the NIH’s chimpanzee decisions in 2013, told Nature that the NIH had been considering retiring the chimps altogether from the beginning if they found that there was no use for them. “It’s clear that chimpanzees are not a needed resource in the biomedical research world,” he said.

As for animal rights activists, this is a major win. “Experimenting on chimpanzees is ethically, scientifically and legally indefensible and we are relieved and happy that NIH is fulfilling its promise to finally end this dark legacy,” Justin Goodman, director of laboratory investigations at the U.S. organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), told Nature. “We will continue to encourage the same considerations be made for all primates in laboratories.”

The Humane Society has also been fighting to stop chimps from being used in medical laboratories. “We’re elated that these highly intelligent sociable animals are on their way out of laboratories and into better living environments without any threat of people injuring or harming them for any purpose,” Wayne Pacelle, the CEO and president of the Humane Society of the U.S., told ABC News.

However, for those who use chimps for conservation work, the decision is the NIH being irresponsible. “There really is no other place to do conservation-related trials but the USbiomed facilities,” a disease ecologist at the University of Cambridge Peter Walsh, who has been working on developing an Ebola vaccine for chimpanzees, told Nature. “A lot of wild chimps died in order to capture infants for originally stocking NIH’s own captive populations, and populations they have long supported financially. Now, the first time that NIH has ever been asked to give anything back to wild chimps, they cut and run.”

Though it is essential to think about this decision from every perspective and how it could affect chimps in the long run, it looks like a step in the right direction in terms of animal testing and experimentation.

Related reading: 

I’m switching to cruelty-free cosmetics (and it’s a lot easier than you think)

(Image via Shutterstock)

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