The National Institutes of Health should retire most of its chimps that are currently living in research facilities, according to a working group put together by the NIH to look at the future need for biomedical research on chimps.
The group did recommend keeping a small number of chimps in reserve in case they are needed for studies later on. But it also laid out a detailed description of the kind of living conditions that would be needed for those chimps, and said any proposed research should go through a review committee that includes members of the public.
Chimpanzees are the animals most closely related to humans, and that's why their use in research has received special scrutiny. In December 2011, an independent report commissioned by the NIH said most biomedical research being done on chimps is not scientifically necessary. So the NIH convened a working group to offer advice on what to do.
'Intense And Thoughtful' Debate
"I mean, clearly, there is going to be a reduction in the use of chimpanzees in research," said K.C. Kent Lloyd, a researcher at the University of California, Davis, who co-chaired the NIH working group. "I don't believe that that will be at the cost of research advances, because there are other things that are going on that are improving our ability to use other animal model systems."
The NIH owns about 360 chimpanzees that aren't yet retired and that are living at research facilities. The new report from the working group says the majority should be retired and sent to a sanctuary — a nonlaboratory setting where chimps can live more natural lives — and that planning for this should begin immediately.
Only a small population of about 50 chimps should be retained for any future research needs, the group concluded. It added that research chimps need to live in social groups of at least seven, and each chimp should have at least 1,000 square feet of living space, plus year-round access to the outdoors. Chimps should be able to do things like forage for food and build nests.
Lloyd says defining those appropriate living conditions was a challenging task for the group.
"I wouldn't characterize it as contentious, but I would characterize it as intense and thoughtful," he said.
Implementation An Uphill Task
But if the NIH accepts these recommendations, putting them into effect won't be easy.
The existing sanctuary system for retired lab chimps is already full, says James Anderson, an official with the NIH who has been working on planning for more chimp retirements: "Currently there's no space there; there's no capacity."
NIH doesn't have the money to pay for building new living quarters at existing sanctuaries. And even if it did, the NIH faces a restriction on its spending. When Congress created the chimp sanctuary system in 2000, it put a spending cap in place, limiting funding to a total of $30 million.
The NIH will hit that cap this summer, said Anderson, adding, "It is a concern for us and it's something that we'd have to have addressed at the congressional level."
The NIH will take public comments on the new report's conclusions; a decision is expected in March.
Groups working to end chimp research say they are encouraged by what's been happening.
"We are very pleased with the report. Of course, we'd want to see every single chimpanzee recommended to go to sanctuary, but this is a huge step in the right direction," said Kathleen Conlee of The Humane Society of the United States. "So now it's time to roll our sleeves up and figure out how we are going to get all these animals to sanctuary and give them the lifetime of retirement that they so deserve."
At the same time, her group is also lobbying for federal legislation to limit chimp research. Conlee explains that's because whatever the NIH does will not apply to the 200 or so lab chimps that are privately owned.