A number of countries have ended some types of research with chimpanzees over the past decades. For example, the US National Institutes of Health announced in November 2015 that it would no longer support many types of chimpanzee research. In Europe, the fate of former research chimpanzees has depended upon a mix of private wildlife parks and zoos for the animals’ care and management. The outcomes in term of chimpanzee health and survival remain relatively unknown.
In the US, the American public, via public entities, has legislated long-term support and substantial funding for the construction and maintenance of a facility dedicated to the exclusive care of chimpanzees retired from research. However, the outcomes for retired chimpanzees have been the source of public discussion and increasing concern.
This month, Dr. Cindy Buckmaster, writing in Lab Animal (Vol 45, No 7, July 2016) in an article addressed to the National Institutes of Health Director and titled: “Dr. Collins, please save our chimps!” shared a powerful and very sad story about some of the chimpanzees, asking:
“…why Dr. Collins would force these animals to leave everything they have known and everyone they love to go to a strange place, filled with strangers who cannot care for them nearly as well as their family at MDAKC! Does he know that 69% (9 out of 13) of the chimps already moved from MDAKC to his chosen sanctuary have died? Does he know that most of these treasured family members died within a few months of their arrival at the sanctuary? Does he know how they suffered? Does he know their stories? What about Maynard, who had ‘the best play face and laugh ever,’ and loved playing with his human and animal family at MDAKC? Does Dr. Collins know that Maynard had a fatal heart attack in the sanctuary the day after he was introduced to a new group of chimpanzees? Does he care? I’d like to believe that he does, but I don’t know him. If I did, I would ask him to visit the MDAKC chimps so he would know, beyond doubt, that retirement in place is the most loving thing he could do for these animals. And I would beg him to save our chimps.”
Buckmaster’s plea echoes those of others with concern that unrelenting political pressure on the NIH from groups opposed to animal research has resulted in decisions about chimpanzees that may not be in the animals’ best interests. In the aftermath of a series of decisions by the NIH over the past several years and increasing pressure by opponents of animal research, NIH has mandated the transfer of chimpanzees from their homes, established social groups, and dedicated caregivers to the Louisiana facility (See: Where should US chimpanzees live; Chimpanzee retirement: facts, myths and motivations; and What cost savings: a closer look a GAPCSA 2011).
The result of the transfers has included injuries to chimpanzees as they are introduced into new social groups and to deaths of animals. As Buckmaster notes, for one recent group of 13 relocated chimpanzees, the result was a nearly 70% death rate for animals moved from dedicated research facilities with long-time experience in caring for the animals to the Louisiana sanctuary. As a result of a decades-old ban on breeding, all sanctuaries and research facilities housing chimpanzees are largely populated by aging animals. Yet, the number of chimpanzees that have died upon transfer from research facility to sanctuary contrasts with an average death rate for chimpanzees due to advanced age, health, or other causes for a given facility, an expected average of 3-4 individuals per year (http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-16-392).
Research chimpanzees make up approximately 40% of the 1,650 chimpanzees estimated to live in the US, which includes chimpanzees not only in research facilities, but also sanctuaries, zoos, and other entertainment and breeding venues (see graph below). As recently announced, a large number of research chimpanzees housed at the New Iberia Research Center will retire to a private US sanctuary in northern Georgia. The remaining US research chimpanzees are under 1/3rd of all chimpanzees housed in the US.
The chimpanzee deaths at Chimp Haven have increasingly raised significant questions in the communities that are concerned with ape well-being These concerns are the subject of considerable private discussion in the chimpanzee research community by those who have cared for the animals for decades. Public expressions of concern have been more constrained, but are emerging, as are calls for a re-examination of where the chimpanzees should live. For example, Buckmaster says:
“In fact, many of our chimps would fare better if they were allowed to retire in place. And several of these precious creatures have already suffered and died because the NIH would not allow them to do so. The MD Anderson Keeling Center (MDAKC) in Texas has been home to the healthiest, happiest chimpanzees in America for decades. Their living quarters are comparable to, or better, than any US sanctuary, and none of these sanctuaries can compete with the level of care provided to chimpanzees at MDAKC. The MDAKC staff includes ten full-time veterinarians with a combined total of 92 years of experience caring for chimpanzees; 6 are specially boarded primate veterinarians, 3 are specially boarded veterinary pathologists, and 3 are specially certified to provide laser and acupuncture therapies to supplement traditional treatment regimens. There are also 22 specially trained, full-time technicians devoted to the chimps’ husbandry, health and behavioral needs, including 3 night technicians. MDAKC also has a full-service clinical pathology laboratory on site that allows for the immediate diagnosis and treatment of animals with health concerns. No US sanctuary is staffed or equipped to care for chimpanzees like MDAKC, not one! In fact, the sanctuary that the NIH is forcing us to send our chimpanzees to currently is not even equipped to carry out its own diagnostic lab work. This is concerning, given the advanced age of many research chimpanzees. Honestly, it would make more sense for Dr. Collins to retire the nation’s research chimps to MDAKC!
Buckmaster’s comments should resonate with all of those concerned with ape well-being. The US public has provided considerable support meant to give these chimpanzees retirement care—on the assumption that such care would be in the animals’ best interests and protective of their health and well-being in retirement. The federal commitment to ape retirement is unusual compared to other countries.It also reflects broad support from the research community as well as the public.
Chimp Haven, the first and only federal chimpanzee sanctuary in the US, was founded in 1995 by a NIH-funded behavioral scientist Dr. Linda Brent along with a group of primatologists and business professionals. Through federal legislation in 2000—the Chimpanzees Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection Act (CHIMP Act; 42 U.S.C. §§ 287a-3a)—a national chimpanzee sanctuary system was established and NIH was formally mandated to provide life-time funding for the research chimpanzees it retires. As a result, in 2002 the NIH awarded Chimp Haven a 10-year, cost-sharing contract in which the NIH provided roughly $19 million in total costs for retired chimpanzee care, as well as $11.5 million for initial construction of the sanctuary. Six years later, in 2008, federal sanctuary standards were established (see Fed. Register 73 FR 60423, Oct. 10, 2008: Standards of Care for Chimpanzees Held in the Federally Supported Chimpanzee System). These standards apply to Chimp Haven, but do not necessarily extend to other sanctuaries.
Thus far, the federal investment in sanctuary retirement exceeds $30M. An analysis by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in 2012 estimated an additional $56M cost to retire and maintain federally-funded chimpanzees for a 5 year period (not the animals’ lifespan). A 2016 Government Accounting Office report determined that the range of per day care costs paid by NIH for a chimpanzee housed in the four facilities NIH supports was between a low of $41 and a high of $61, or between $15,000 – $22,000 per chimpanzee per year. Thus, NIH’s total support for care and maintenance of its 561 chimpanzees each year may be between $8,415,000 – $12,342,000. By extension, over a 5 year period, the cost would be between $42,075,000 – $61,710,000. NIH pays 75% of costs and Chimp Haven is required to provide matching funds via private donations and fundraising. Of critical note, the cost for chimpanzee care will also likely vary significantly with increasing medical and care needs as the population ages.
In light of a complex mix of animal welfare, cost, and pragmatic concerns, a substantial number of NIH-owned research chimpanzees have not yet been transferred to Chimp Haven. The speed of transferring NIH-owned chimpanzees to sanctuaries remains a source of contention and was directly addressed by the 2016 GAO report. The report determined that: “Most of the 561 chimpanzees that NIH owned or supported as of January 15, 2016, had not been retired to Chimp Haven, which housed 179 NIH-owned chimpanzees at that time.” The agency concludes that NIH “has not developed or communicated a clear implementation plan to transfer the remaining chimpanzees, in part because of uncertainties about the available space at Chimp Haven. However, NIH has information about Chimp Haven’s current capacity and about anticipated space that will become available as a result of chimpanzee mortality. Absent a clear implementation plan, the four facilities that care for NIH-owned or NIH-supported chimpanzees may not have the information they need to care for the chimpanzees in the most cost-effective way that considers the timing of the transfers and the welfare needs of the chimpanzees. … Moreover, the absence of such a plan is inconsistent with federal internal control standards that call for effective communication of quality information.”
At the same time, active public discussions are continuing about whether NIH-owned chimpanzees should be retired in their current settings (in situ retirement), or if substantial funds for new construction should be made available in order to provide for their transfer to the federal sanctuary. Among the arguments for retiring the chimpanzees in their current homes is that the research facilities can offer the same level of care as the federal sanctuary, particularly given the new requirement for ethologically-relevant standards of care. From the animal welfare perspective, retirement in place would also have the advantage of protecting the chimpanzees—many of whom are aged— from the stress of relocation and disruption of stable social groups. For example, in an earlier interview about movement of chimpanzees, veterinarian and director of the MD Anderson Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine, Dr. Christian Abee:
“praised Chimp Haven’s facilities, but he said the stress of moving can take a fatal toll on older, more frail chimpanzees. Of the 13 chimps his facility had transferred this year to Chimp Haven, four died or were euthanized within the first three months, he said. Chimpanzees, an endangered species native to West and Central Africa, can live to 60 years in captivity. I don’t mean this as a criticism of Chimp Haven, but we uprooted them, took them from their family groups, we moved them cross country, we put them in unfamiliar settings with caregivers who didn’t know them, and four died,” Abee said. “We would not have anticipated those four to die if they had stayed here” (Walters & Knowles, 2015).
From the perspective of the individual animal’s health and well-being, the type of facility in which he or she lives is only relevant insofar as it affects the provision, stability, and type of care, housing, and other aspects of daily life. In other words, whether the facility is a sanctuary, zoo, or research institute may be irrelevant if the standards for care, housing, and living conditions are substantively similar across settings. Ultimately, from the available data and the chimpanzee deaths that have occurred following their relocation to the federal sanctuary, it may appear that NIH and others advocating for transfer of the animals from their current homes and social groups to the sanctuary may be making a mistake. It is a mistake that is counterproductive to the animals’ welfare. It is one that appears to prioritize political considerations and appeasement of opponents of animal research over the interests of the animals themselves. In short, political expediency seems to be trumping animal welfare for chimpanzees and this serves no one well.
Speaking of Research
Portions of this post are excerpted from Bennett, A.J. & Panicker, S. (in press). Broader Impacts: International Implications and Integrative Ethical Consideration of Policy Decisions about US Chimpanzee Research. Am J Primatology.