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Retired chimpanzees pose a problem in the US

Government grapples with how best to deal with hundreds of former lab animals

A retired lab chimp looks out of his group enclosure at Chimp Haven in Louisiana. The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images
A retired lab chimp looks out of his group enclosure at Chimp Haven in Louisiana. The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

The US government has a chimpanzee problem: how to handle the retirement of hundreds of chimps once used for medical experiments.

Continued experimentation on the animals was found to be “largely unnecessary” in a 2011 study by the Committee on the Use of Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioural Research, an arm of the government's National Institutes of Health.

The NIH accepted the committee's findings and announced in November 2015 it was ending medical experiments on chimps, effectively putting them into retirement.

Strict laws were already in place, including the CHIMP Act of 2000, enshrining the right of surplus chimps to be retired and enjoy lifetime care. But ending all experimentation left the NIH the task of sending hundreds of chimps into retirement.

In March this year it had 504 animals, of which 232 were already in federal sanctuaries, mainly at Chimp Haven in Louisiana.

But it was left with another 272 to deal with, of which 177 had chronic health conditions including heart and kidney problems.

Some chimps are considered too fragile to move because of their physical condition and age, with scientists fearing that the stress could seriously affect their well-being. The average lifespan for chimpanzees in captivity is 31.7 years for males and 38.7 for females.

The journey to a sanctuary, which can take up to 15 hours, in some cases requires the chimps to be sedated before being loaded on to a climate-controlled lorry.

Some chimps who were moved did not fare well. Nine out of 13 animals sent to Chimp Haven from MD Anderson’s Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research in Bastrop, Texas died within 18 months, although NIH investigators put the mortality rate down to the age of the chimps and the fact that several suffered from pre-existing conditions.

Another major problem is that chimps are social animals and breaking up their colonies carries an intrinsic risk, which is one of the factors taken into account before deciding whether or not to relocate.

Although the NIH has concluded that, subject to a vet's approval, all of its chimps should be moved to sanctuaries, some experts question the strategy.

“The simplest solution is to leave them in situ,” said Bill Hopkins, a neuroscientist at Georgia State University in Atlanta. “That might come across as anti-retirement, but it is not meant that way.

“Many are already living in stable communities. Some are living in housing which is as good or better than that where they would be moved to. All of the risks for the chimps are in moving them, there are no risks in leaving them where they are.

“That is not to say there are not some chimps who would be better served if they were retired to Chimp Haven or another facility with better housing. But if they are to persist in this approach, they should prioritise moving the ones that are most in need of better housing and care.

“The federal sanctuary is not the only place, there are other facilities which have equally good housing for them.”

But Elizabeth Magner, programme manager with the New England Anti-Vivisection Society, disagreed.

"Sanctuaries have had a lot of success in moving hundreds of chimps," she said.

""There have been numerous cases where aged or sick chimpanzees in laboratories go on to thrive in a sanctuary, in many cases because they are removed from the sites they associate with the trauma of experimentation.

"Our view is that unless a chimpanzee is in the final symptomatic stages of life, he or she should be moved to a sanctuary. The benefits far outweigh the risk."


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Updated: September 16, 2018 05:34 PM



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