Where should US chimpanzees live?

Understanding what research is, what it means, and how chimpanzees are cared for in captive settings matters to decisions, the animals, public interests, and preventing unintended consequences.

Photo credit: Kathy West
Photo credit: Kathy West

Ongoing decisions and news coverage about US chimpanzee research have provoked continuing debate and raised questions about the best course of action for the animals, science, and public interests. Like many complex, emotional, topics the arguments and language that have surrounded the discussion have been polarized and have left many with impressions that are less than accurate. In turn, thoughtful and serious consideration has often been stymied.

One of the primary areas of confusion surrounds what exactly is meant by the term “research.” Another is what standards of care best provide for chimpanzees’ welfare. Here we cover some common questions about chimpanzee research in the US and the implications and consequences of decisions about chimpanzees living in dedicated research facilities. We also highlight and compare standards for care, external oversight, and public transparency for chimpanzees living in different settings in the US. We share two documents that provide details about the many scientific discoveries published over the past several years from scientists working in dedicated chimpanzee research facilities. One is a list of over 175 representative publications from recent years. The great majority of these scientific publications report discoveries from behavioral, cognitive, and neurobehavioral research. The second document highlights media coverage that demonstrates public interest in these discoveries and studies.

Pdfs here:  Chimpanzee Research Representative Publications (2007-2015)  and Chimpanzee Media List


1) Isn’t chimpanzee research in the US finished?

On November 18, 2015, the US National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins issued a public statement that NIH will no longer support biomedical research on chimpanzees. While the statement (and ensuing media coverage – here, here, here) clearly references biomedical research, what is unclear is the impact of this decision on non-invasive behavioral and cognitive research with chimpanzees. Much, if not all, of the media coverage on the issue of chimpanzee retirement has focused on research with chimpanzees for developing vaccines for Ebola and studying infectious disease. At present, it does appear that NIH’s decisions will truncate infectious disease research with chimpanzees.

Infectious disease research is not, however, the entirety of chimpanzee research. It is important, but also a relatively small part. Thus, conclusions about the need, value, or future of infectious disease research should not be mistaken for conclusions about chimpanzee research itself. In fact, in the public discussions and headlines about NIH’s decisions, very little attention has been paid to the enormous amount of non-invasive and minimally-invasive research that has contributed to new discoveries and knowledge about behavior, cognition, genetics, social, emotional, and neural processes in chimpanzees. Such research is vibrant, ongoing, and makes substantial contributions, as is evidenced by the many cognitive and behavioral studies that dominate this representative list of over 175 scientific publications over the past several years (Chimpanzee Research Representative Publications (2007-2015)

The work also has broad support. Public fascination and support of research that helps us better understand these animals is illustrated by the plethora of news stories in just the last several years, since the initial NIH decision on retiring chimpanzees from research (Chimpanzee Media List).  Furthermore, NIH—as well as NSF and other agencies and foundations—continue to fund this type of chimpanzee research. Last, but certainly not least, much—if not all—of the behavioral and cognitive research with chimpanzees meets the principles and criteria elucidated by the Institute of Medicine panel that reviewed the need and value of chimpanzee research. The panel’s conclusions were accepted by NIH, and their recommendations are reflected in ongoing behavioral and cognitive studies with chimpanzees.


2) Why does chimpanzee behavioral and psychological research matter?

A psychologist who works with chimpanzees was once approached at a conference by an animal-rights activist who heatedly accused the researcher of being a terrible person for confining chimpanzees and doing research with them.  The activist argued that chimpanzees were too smart to be kept in captivity.  He argued that they could learn language, mathematics, had theory of mind, and showed sophisticated cognitive skills and social skills.  The researcher asked this activist how he knew these things, and whether he had worked with chimpanzees or had ever been around them.  No, was the response, but the activist had seen all of these things demonstrated in videos and documentaries, and he countered that everyone knew how smart chimps are.  The researcher then asked him exactly where he thought those documentaries were filmed, and explained that nearly all of those amazing capacities were discovered and documented with chimpanzees studied, and in many cases nurtured through decades of excellent care, in research facilities in the US.

This discussion highlights the point that it is exactly the behavioral research that is becoming difficult, or impossible, to do in this country that originally led to the public’s recognition and support as they came to see chimpanzees as being worthy of protection.  If such behavioral research ceases to exist with captive chimpanzee groups, or only occurs in settings in which longitudinal cognitive and behavioral science is secondary to other management aims, we will lose the chance to learn more about the mental lives of our primate cousins.  Imagine that 50 years ago all chimpanzee behavioral research stopped in laboratories.  If it had, chimpanzees likely would have been zoo curiosities and little more.  Ape language, numerical cognition, metacognition, bartering, reciprocity, episodic memory, and other similar capacities would never have been demonstrated. Considering that makes one wonder whether, in that reality and in absence hallmark demonstrations of chimpanzees’ human-like intelligence, present-day activists would even care about chimpanzees in captivity.

The success of behavioral research in highlighting the social and cognitive sophistication of chimpanzees (and, more recently, the complementary neuroimaging data that show even more similarities between ape and human cognition) has become its own worst nightmare rather than a natural justification for asking new questions of these animals.  What we have learned has changed the way that the public and scientists view and treat animals. And it demonstrably has changed perspectives, policies, decisions, and care practices. But it should not result in a blanket prohibition against research with animals. Nor should it be used to support a default conclusion that research captivity is inherently bad, and sanctuary housing is inherently good. Both restrict the apes for their protection and the public’s, and both provide environments that support the animals’ physical and psychological well-being. But it would seem that the best place to ensure that chimpanzees are optimally cared for would be a place that is dedicated to studying chimpanzee behavior and mental health—a dedicated research facility.

If—on the hand—the ultimate result of new discoveries is to truncate research, the costs will be severe not only to our knowledge about these animals’ mental lives, but also to the perceived value of the animals to future generations of humans who will be faced with the imminent extinction of wild great apes and will have to address that threat.

CC-BY-NC-SA3) Can’t behavioral, cognitive, genomic, and other minimally-invasive research be done in zoos and sanctuaries?

Zoos and sanctuaries have always played an important role in studying the cognition of great apes, and other species.  And, that will continue.  But, it would be patently false to argue that many of the discoveries of sophisticated chimpanzee cognitive abilities would have been possible in those settings.  To give just one example, the ape-language studies with chimpanzees all were undertaken in traditional “laboratories” and often under the support of federal grants to universities.  Those projects showed that rearing conditions were critical to demonstrating (and instantiating) the highest degrees of language and communication skills in apes. This research was done in laboratories, not zoos, sanctuaries, or field sites.

Most critically, the research could only have been done in laboratories—in settings where researchers could control the animals’ experiences and maximize the chimpanzees’ opportunities to learn; where the apes’ lifelong health and participation could be ensured, and where researchers could make use of the chimpanzees’ natural curiosity and motivation; and where the chimpanzees’ full-time job could be learning and partnering with researchers in the science. Those facilities, some of which still exist, are research laboratories, and so those who advocate against laboratory chimpanzee research are advocating against the very places that have defined the (current) upper limits of ape cognitive abilities.  To cease research with chimpanzees in laboratories would cease those research programs and others that are currently funded to push even further our knowledge of chimpanzee cognition.

4) What is the difference between standards of care for chimpanzees in dedicated research facilities, in zoos, and in sanctuaries in the US?

The picture below shows chimpanzees in four settings. Where are they?  Two are current research facilities, one is an NIH-funded sanctuary, and one is a publicly-funded zoo. The settings look remarkably similar because they are in many ways. And to the chimpanzees, the sign over the door – research, zoo, sanctuary—doesn’t matter, as long as it doesn’t affect the animals’ care, housing, and welfare.

chimp housing [Autosaved]
Clockwise: Top – Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Atlanta, GA (Note: Yerkes’ chimpanzees are not NIH-owned or supported); Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, IL; MD Anderson Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine, Bastrop, TX; Chimp Haven, Keithsville, LA.
The question then, is what kind of housing and care matters to the animals’ well-being. In fact, the majority of research chimpanzees in the US live in settings that are similar. The facilities provide outdoor housing, including natural ground and sunlight. They also provide extensive and complex climbing structures, opportunities for foraging and tool-use, toys, fresh produce and treats, bedding, interaction with expert and compassionate caregivers, and state-of-the-art medical care and facilities.

The standards that govern housing and care of chimpanzees vary, as does the level of external oversight and public transparency. The figure below shows aspects of that variation in terms of federal, public, non-voluntary requirements. Dedicated research facilities that receive NIH or other federal funding are required, by federal law, to provide care and housing exceeds the standards specified by the Animal Welfare Act. By contrast, zoos and other facilities licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) must only meet the AWA standards. Any facility registered or licensed by the USDA is subject to oversight by the federal agency. Furthermore, records of registration, inspection, or investigation of complaints are available to the general public via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. For NIH-funded research facilities, additional oversight and public transparency is provided via the NIH’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW).

standards comparison DPB 2015 Bennett

Private sanctuaries are neither required to be licensed by the USDA, nor required to meet AWA standards. It is important to note, however, that some sanctuaries voluntarily elect to be licensed by the USDA as exhibitors. Private sanctuaries do not fall under the type or extent of public oversight or transparency as do dedicated publicly-funded research facilities. That does not mean that the care provided in private sanctuary facilities is insufficient; but it does mean that the public has little venue to ensure the animals are well cared for and virtually no means to evaluate evidence of that care, request investigation, or receive information.

One of the primary points often offered in response to observation of this regulatory unevenness is that there are also accreditation agencies and programs. It is true that each type of facility has voluntary, private accreditation agencies. For many dedicated research facilities, this is AAALAC accreditation. For many zoos, it is the American Zoological Association (AZA) accreditation. For many sanctuaries, it is accreditation via the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance (NAPSA) or the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS).

The question for the public, however, is the extent to which standards of care, external oversight, and maintenance of records and information should be left to private, rather than public, agencies. For animals and facilities that are privately owned and administered, this may be entirely appropriate. But for animals and facilities that are public – as are NIH’s chimpanzees and chimpanzee research – it is the public standards, oversight, and transparency that ensure the animals’ care and the public interests. Indeed, when those facilities also support research, additional levels of public oversight exist in the form of peer review (which formally includes review of ethical treatment of animals) when this research is published or submitted for grant support.

Photo credit:  Kathy West


In summary, regardless of headlines about the end of US chimpanzee research, there is clearly ongoing work that is humanely-conducted, ethical, of value, and consistent with public interests. The critical questions that remain are about how to best protect the animals and to balance scientific discovery that benefits chimpanzees, other animals, humans, and the environment.

Allyson J. Bennett, Michael J. Beran, Sarah F. Brosnan, William D. Hopkins, Charles R. Menzel, and David A. Washburn

The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their institutions. The authors are psychological scientists whose research includes studies of chimpanzees and other primates.



18 thoughts on “Where should US chimpanzees live?

  1. We are dealing here with the general public being brainwashed by semantics, political correctness, where animal ‘sanctuary’ is some incredible animal Eden on Earth, and zoos, exhibitors or pet owners are evil. The reality is sanctuary=cage, and many animals are rotated form small cages to bigger habitats, not any different caging than in research, zoo or pet settings. Unfortunately the way brainwashed legislators are going is to ban almost everybody except GFAS sanctuaries and AZA zoos. This often means, especially in big cat field that is my specialty, that many big cats are banned from non AZA zoo or pet settings, and owners are forced to give them up to a GFAS sanctuary private club, where they might live in often SMALLER cages, surrounded by animals and humans they are NOT attached to. But brainwashed public and animal rights activists are happy, because the animals are in sanctuary and it gives them that good feeling of accomplishment, that in real life is often worse for the animal welfare. Sanctuary is not heaven on Earth. Insert your dog here, is your dog better with you on sofa watching TV, or would your dog be happier confiscated and living happily ever after (Sarcasm) in no kill sanctuary, aka animal prison. This tactic just makes hypocritical $anctaurie$ rich IMHO, but doesn’t necessarily improve animals welfare; human deaths, injuries and improper money management does happen in GFAS sanctuaries.

  2. Just a note to say that I appreciate the discussion above and very much value the article. That said, this is a discussion that has been going on for at least 35 years that I know of, and we have no arrived at a point that leaves rather little latitude for continuing scientific research involving chimpanzees–except the kinds of things that can be done noninvasively in zoological gardens and sanctuaries. And maybe, most things that should be done could be done within those settings, if only there were a will to do so.
    Years ago, colleagues and I proposed creation of a “Biopark” facility that would have served as a retirement sanctuary, research zoo, and educational facility that would have helped address these problems. See:
    Erwin et al., 2002, “One Gerontology: Advancing understanding of aging through studies of great apes and other primates” in Erwin & Hof AGING IN NONHUMAN PRIMATES. Karger.
    We worked with zoos and research centers on studies of aging, but the support for a serious effort to advance comparative gerontology in the mutual interests great apes and humans was uneven. We did succeed in developing a great ape brain bank that resulted in dramatic increases in our understanding of comparative neurobiology (I don’t see the many resulting publications listed here). Colleagues recently reported the first full-blown case of Alzheimer’s Disease in a chimpanzee.
    Sadly, on one side we have had people who exploited chimpanzees as advertisements to support the notion that scientists are monsters. And at the other extreme, we have had scientists who claim there is more to be learned from “the humanized mouse” than from chimpanzees (essentially, that if we cannot treat chimpanzees as if they are mice or flies or worms, they are of little scientific research value). And, of course, if it all about us (human health), we should only be studying ourselves. What an incredibly narrow public policy basis we have had driving research.
    I want to embrace and promote “One Health / One Life” approaches.

  3. JB,

    Your comments reinforce my point. Responsible scientists (Boysen, Fouts) made sure they took care of their chimpanzees when university or grant support ended for them. Also, bringing up Lucy and the chimps from Oklahoma is from the dark ages…no responsible scientist would care for or treat chimpanzees that way Lemon and Termerlin did more than 40 years ago. To continue to begin up these old examples is completely useless in any modern day discussion of chimpanzee well being.

    I would also point out that the National Zoo had a language-training component as part of their Think Tank and, from what I have been told by Rob Shumaker, it was fairly successful. Ape language research doesn’t require hand rearing and to suggest otherwise is simply wrong. The approach Matsuzawa and Savage-Rumbaugh have taken, particularly in the latter research endeavors, all adopted approaches where the human experimenter was a participant observer in the apes lives. We could debate the merits of this approach but, in my mind, even this approach is not necessary to study language development and skills in apes.

    1. If the National Zoo’s language program was successful, then we could change the answer to Question #3 in the article above (Can’t Behavioral, Cognitive, Genomic, and Other Minimally-Invasive Research be Done in Zoos and Sanctuaries?) to “Yes”.

  4. Mulcahy states that “research can and should be done noninvasively, in settings that prioritize chimpanzee welfare above all else.” I do not see how that desire (which I agree with) requires that the location must be a sanctuary or zoo versus a laboratory at a university that supports that exact mission. As noted by Hopkins, excellent long-term care of chimpanzees has occurred at numerous research laboratories for decades, including the laboratory and university at which I work. We have had continuous federal funding to care for our chimpanzees and other primates for four decades, and we conduct exactly the non-invasive, cognitive research that has helped define what chimpanzee minds are, and what chimpanzees are capable of learning and doing. We also have had tremendous financial support from our university – millions of dollars of investment in animal facilities, veterinary care, staffing, student training, and faculty support. And, there are other similar research facilities that have made and are making such investments, often to a greater degree than occurs at sanctuaries or some zoos. So, when someone says “no more chimpanzee research in laboratories” they necessarily include facilities such as ours, as well as all others. That kind of broad, indiscriminate policy can and will do great harm to those chimpanzees that are in good facilities, and that can contribute meaningfully to behavioral science while still being in an environment that prioritizes their welfare. To argue that such an environment cannot exist is to deny the reality of such places that do exist.

  5. To single out the unfortunate and tragic events surrounding Nim and Booee as reference point for current attitudes and practices in chimpanzee welfare by ape-language researchers is a bit disingenuous. Fouts built a place at Central Washington for his chimps, Sarah (Premack’s chimp) went to Sally Boysen’s lab, Austin, Sherman, Lana and Panzee all stayed at the Language Research Center, Kanzi and the other bonobos all resided at the LRC until 2005 when they moved to a multimillion dollar facility in Iowa, Chantek is at Zoo Atlanta, Koko is still with Penny Patterson and Ai is still with Matsuzawa. All these scientists haven’t and did not do what was done to Nim and Booee, so to suggest that “some” or “many” these apes were discarded, used in infectious disease or shipped from lab to lab is simply not true. In short, I do not think it is fair or correct to hold these scientists, including myself, accountable for the actions of a few that took place more than 30 years ago. Indeed, I am sure I could find plenty of examples of poor care, neglect or shuffling of apes from place to place (which, by the way, is done as part of the SSP program) in the zoo or sanctuary community (Here is one from 2012: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2220321/Zoo-fined-4-500-staff-neglect-saw-chimp-starve-death.html). Based on these kinds of events, I certainly would not chastise all zoos or sanctuaries, just as the decisions by Herb Terrace and others long ago should not be applicable to other ape-language scientists.

    I would also take issue with the claim that cross-fostered chimpanzees show deficits in species typical sexual behavior and grooming, as cited in Freeman and Ross (2014). The specific identity of the chimpanzees in this study is not reported in the paper and, as far as I know, none of the ape-language chimpanzees were part of this work. Perhaps you mean something different by “cross-fostered” but I have never seen nor come across a paper that supports with this claim. Indeed, based on my own knowledge, Lana has conceived and raised two chimpanzees and Ai has raised one offspring. All the LRC chimpanzees and bonobos regularly groom with one another. I am sure that a home-raised pet chimpanzee raised without conspecifics is going to engage in the behaviors reported by Freeman and Ross but this would also be the case for any chimpanzee raised in that manner, independent of whether they resided at a lab, zoo or sanctuary. Likewise, the laboratory and zoo community has struggled for years to come up with better interventions for chimpanzees that required human intervention early in life when the females did not engage in appropriate or adequate care. Thankfully, the rearing practices of captive born chimpanzees that require human intervention (i.e., require some type of human rearing) have improved so as to minimize its effect on long-term behavioral development.

    1. Bill, the two remaining chimpanzees from Roger Fouts’ research were moved to a sanctuary due to lack of support for the program from Central Washington University. Ohio State closed down its program and sent Boysen’s chimpanzees, including Sarah from Premack’s research, to sanctuary. Both happened within the last decade. And there were many other chimps at IPS in Norman besides Nim and Booee. Lucy is an equally famous and tragic example.

      I wouldn’t hold anyone responsible for the actions of others, but as a whole, ape language research seems to me less like a shining example of the laboratory community’s unique lifetime commitment to its subjects and more like a cautionary tale of what can happen when funding and public interest dry up.

      I don’t think zoos and sanctuaries are perfect either. But when someone says that a particular research protocol could not be done at a zoo or sanctuary, as the above essay states – that it could only take place at a lab – I would be inclined to ask why. Plenty of behavioral research takes place at African and North American chimpanzee sanctuaries, and many zoos even conduct cognitive research using touch screens. I suppose ape language was used as an example here because in this day and age no reputable zoo or sanctuary would allow their apes to be hand reared and trained specifically for language research. But there’s good reason for that.

      I fully support behavioral research, and the facilities at some behavioral research labs are quite nice, but the type of research I support would be welcomed equally by laboratories, zoos, and sanctuaries.

  6. It’s so interesting to me that you would choose to highlight ape language research here. It’s widely known that the “lifelong health and participation” of the apes in many of these studies was in fact not ensured and that many were discarded when funding ran out or research priorities shifted. Some were later used in infectious disease research, many were shuffled from lab to lab, while others eventually became the responsibility of the sanctuary community. Entire books were written on the subject. And the very uncertain fate of the few apes still in language studies has been the focus of intense public discussion and media attention over the last decade. The effects of human-rearing and cross-fostering are also generally accepted to be detrimental; for example, chimpanzees with less exposure to conspecifics as infants exhibit lower rates of species-typical grooming and sexual behaviors as adults (Freeman and Ross, 2014), and nursery-reared males are less likely to be successfully integrated into a social group than mother-reared males and females (Brent, 2001). The reason why cross-fostering studies can only be done in labs is because zoos and sanctuaries would not approve such an obviously harmful protocol. Those very protocols, however, have been approved repeatedly by IACUCs at USDA-regulated institutions. It’s the perfect example of why institutional mission still matters.

    Accredited sanctuaries believe in the value of public accountability, which is why, as you acknowledge, they are voluntarily licensed by the USDA. This is not just “some” sanctuaries; GFAS-accredited sanctuaries with USDA oversight care for the overwhelming majority of retired and rescued chimpanzees.

    Personally, I don’t see the hypocrisy in using the knowledge we’ve gained in the past to make better decisions in the present. We still have a lot to learn about chimpanzee cognition and behavior, but research can and should be done noninvasively, in settings that prioritize chimpanzee welfare above all else.

  7. Too often decisions made within the Beltway don’t reflect on what’s happening across this country. The authors of this post bring to light valid points as they relate to future accountability for the animals that we and others have provided for over these many years (some careers stretching decades), the importance of the model as it relates to past and future discovery, and the potential losses that access to chimpanzees will play as we move forward. One can only hope that special interest groups are not taking point in defining for biomedical and behavioral research the importance of animal models in general for future generations, however time will tell.

  8. I am so relieved to finally read an article that tells the truth about the lives of chimpanzees in research labs. Especially the part about having natural grass in their enclosures & sunlight. So many sanctuaries like to garner sympathy (and generate donations) by saying that lab chimps felt grass between their toes & sunlight on their face for the first time in their lives. I have also read sanctuary newsletters (donation solicitation) about chimps saved from invasive research. When in reality those chimps had never been involved in medical research. The sanctuaries do know the truth of each chimp because the chimps that arrive at sanctuaries come with complete housing & health records. So despite knowing the truth about these lab chimps, they easily lie for money. And if sanctuaries can lie so easily, what else are they lying about?

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