Can we agree? An ongoing dialogue about where retired research chimpanzees should live

A couple of weeks ago we wrote about concerns for the health and wellbeing of chimpanzees moved from dedicated research facilities in the US to the only federally-supported sanctuary, Chimp Haven (“Do politics trump chimpanzee well-being?  Questions raised about deaths of US research chimpanzees at federally-funded sanctuary” 7/14/16). The impetus for this particular post was a compelling article written by Dr. Cindy Buckmaster (“Dr. Collins, please save our chimps! Lab Animal, Vol 45, No 7, July 2016). The article was about the deaths of 9 of 13 retired research chimpanzees who had recently been transferred to the federal sanctuary from the National Center for Chimpanzee Care (NCCC; University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Bastrop).

Lab Animal article about relocated chimpanzees

There are, of course, other research facilities and other sanctuaries that house chimpanzees in the US. We, and others, have written previously about the broader picture, events, and considerations, including in posts here and in peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals (e.g., Facts must inform discussion of future of chimpanzee research, 8/12/11; Guest post: Efforts to ban chimpanzee research are misguided, 10/13/11; Where should US chimpanzees live, 12/5/15; Bennett, 2015; Bennett & Panicker, 2016).

Our recent post, like others on this topic, addressed some of the considerations that we believe should inform serious, fact-based public discussion of the different settings in which chimpanzees live in the US. The primary focus of the post, however, was on the federal sanctuary and the outcomes of transfer from a research facility to the sanctuary. There are several reasons for focusing on this case. Among them, are:

  • Providing the best possible care to ensure retired research chimpanzees’ health and well-being is the central ethical justification for continued public support of the animals.
  • Decisions about whether or not to transfer retired research chimpanzees to sanctuaries and zoos are ongoing and, presumably, will be informed by consideration of the outcomes for animals already relocated.
  • These chimpanzees are supported largely by federal funds, whether in dedicated research facilities or in the only federally-funded sanctuary. Chimp Haven is not the only, nor is it the largest, chimpanzee sanctuary in the US. It is, however, the only sanctuary in the federal sanctuary “system” and the only sanctuary that receives millions of dollars of federal support and a commitment to 75% of the cost to care for retired NIH research chimpanzees.
  • Similarly, federally-owned research chimpanzees are not the only chimpanzees in the US. Some research chimpanzees are the responsibility of private institutions. The retired chimpanzees transferred by NIH to Chimp Haven are chimpanzees that are owned by the federal agency. Thus, the ultimate decisions about the chimpanzees are under the direct control of the public agency.
  • While the focus here is on a particular subset of chimpanzees and a particular set of facilities in which they live, that does not mean that other chimpanzees and facilities are beyond the concern of the public and the research community. By contrast to NCCC and CH, however, chimpanzees owned by private institutions and transferred to private sanctuaries is largely not decided with public input or by public agencies. For example, this is the case for many of the chimpanzees slated for transfer from the University of Louisiana’s New Iberia Research Center (NIRC) to a new sanctuary, Project Chimps, in Georgia. It is also the case for chimpanzees at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center (YNPRC) that were transferred, with assistance from the American Zoological Association’s (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP), to a Tennessee zoo. In fact, the movement of chimpanzees between zoos in the US is a common occurrence and one that occurs with little public dialogue and input into decisions.

For all of these reasons, along with other more fundamental questions about the care of chimpanzees, the ethical justification for activities that they are involved in, and the roles that different types of facilities play, continuing discussion of the transfer of retired research animals to the federal sanctuary is of interest to many.

Photo credit: Kathy West

Perspectives from experts across the communities that care for chimpanzees

A number of people with long history, expertise, and deep involvement in care for US chimpanzees commented on our previous posts to provide their perspectives and additional information that can inform others concerned with the situation. Among others, these comments were from veterinarians, scientists, and board members with direct experience at NCCC, the dedicated research facility from which chimpanzees that were the subject of the post were transferred, and Chimp Haven, the chimpanzees’ final destination.

What emerged from the comments appeared to be a consensus on a number of points, including universal agreement that the care and housing for chimpanzees at the research facility, the NCCC, in which the animals lived prior to transfer and many continue to live, is excellent. In addition, there were multiple calls for collaboration and setting aside differences across the different communities involved in decision-making and care for retired chimpanzees.

At the same time, members of the CH Board leveled some criticisms at the post. The chairman of the CH board and another member of the board felt that it was unfairly focused on their facility, wrongly attributed the stress of chimpanzees’ relocation as a critical factor in the animals’ deaths, and did not adequately represent CH’s care for those animals and its comparability to a research facility.

While the CH board members were critical of the discussion, members of the research community pointed out that sustained campaigns to demonize their own work, facilities, and care for chimpanzees have been a major factor that contributed to the decisions about chimpanzees, to public views, and to the current situation.

Chimpanzees 2Overall, we are encouraged by the response to this post and to the emergence of a public dialogue that goes beyond soundbites and entrenched positions in order to identify points of consensus and points that urgently need further consideration in order to inform ongoing decisions about captive chimpanzees. Providing an accessible space for serious, fact-informed discussion is a central goal of Speaking of Research and our blog. We are particularly encouraged that members of the research, sanctuary, and zoo communities have joined their voices to this particular venue for public dialogue. We appreciate their willingness to provide expert perspectives and to share their views.

While we encourage readers to review the full comments on the original post, we provide here a discussion of some main points and encourage continuation of the dialogue.

Points of apparent consensus:

That the care and housing for chimpanzees at the research facility, the NCCC, in which the animals lived prior to transfer and many continue to live, is excellent.

Dr. Elizabeth Magden, comments on the similarities between the research facility in which she works and the federal sanctuary. Magden is a veterinarian who cares for the chimpanzees at the Bastrop, Texas facility that is part of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, now designated as the National Center for Chimpanzee Care (NCCC).

“Both Chimp Haven and the NCCC have large and enriching housing facilities for chimpanzees, with the goal of giving them the best possible retirement.”

The facility was also praised by Dr. Stephen Ross, an animal behaviorist who is both the chair of the Chimp Haven board and the Director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes, at Lincoln Park Zoo’s (LPZ) Regenstein Center for African Apes. As we’ve noted previously, Ross was also a member of the NIH Working Group on the Use of Chimpanzees in NIH-Supported Research whose recommendations informed the discontinuation of the majority of NIH chimpanzee research grants and the NIH decisions to retire and relocate its chimpanzees.

“Having worked at MDAKC [now NCCC], I concur that the chimpanzee management and housing there is the topline in the industry… I have nothing bad to say about Bastrop or the care they have provided to the chimpanzees that live there.”

Chimpanzees using tools at NCCC
Chimpanzees using tools at NCCC

That the focus of ongoing discussion should be on making future decisions that center on best protecting the animals’ health and well-being.

Many of the commenters articulated this point. As summarized by Professor Michael Beran, a scientist with extensive chimpanzee cognitive and behavioral research at Georgia State University’s long-standing Language Research Center (LRC):

“It is crucial to focus on the long-term needs of these and all chimpanzees and to accurately assess and anticipate what can happen when they are moved like this. Misperceptions about the “goodness” of sanctuaries and the “badness” of labs need to be addressed, but as you noted, this does not have to involve blame. Rather, the hope is that there can be a more careful consideration of what the real environments are like that these chimpanzees currently live in versus the misperceptions of “lab” housing, and also what the real implications might be from moving them elsewhere.”

Dr. Magden, NCCC veterinarian:

“I think we need to refocus this discussion on determining what is best for the animals. … The NCCC has been recognized by the Chair of the CH Board of Directors as a topline facility. Why move chimpanzees from a wonderful facility to a place they do not know, with people that are unfamiliar, and new animals that may (or may not) be friendly towards the newcomers? We all want to be surrounded by our loved ones in our twilight years. Don’t the chimpanzees deserve that too?”

Dr. Steve Ross, CH BOD chair: “If we truly care about the welfare of these and other chimps living in labs and sanctuaries, then we have to spend less time demonizing through biased analyses and more time working together to make sound decisions.”

Chimp Haven photo from NAPSA

Unresolved points:

  • That the age and health status of retired chimpanzees is a critical factor to consider in weighing the risks of relocation; and, that the deaths of recently relocated chimpanzees merits serious concern and examination in order to reduce re-occurrence and risk to other animals considered for relocation.

While all of the commenters appear to agree that consideration of the chimpanzees’ health and welfare should be the primary factor driving decisions, there remains disagreement about whether relocation itself—or the care provided at CH—merit further review in light of recent chimpanzee deaths.  It was these recent deaths that were the focus of Dr. Buckmaster’s open letter to NIH Director Francis Collins and of recent media coverage.

For example, Dr. Elizabeth Magden, DVM, NCCC veterinarian, says:

“Our goals are the same, we love and care deeply for the chimpanzees we serve. That is why a 69% mortality in recently transferred animals is concerning. We need a joint commitment to look into what we can be doing better to help these amazing animals enjoy their retirement for as long as possible. Moving is stressful. Being introduced to new and unknown animals is stressful, can also lead to traumatic injuries, and some facilities have even experienced death.”

Members of the CH Board, including Ross, but also veterinarian Dr. Thomas Butler and Emory University and chimpanzee researcher Professor Frans DeWaal, provided personal testimonials about the quality of care at the facility. Overall, they appear to conclude that the recent deaths are only to be expected based on the animals’ ages. As summarized by Prof. DeWaal:

“Since we take in and house many individuals that have surpassed the median age at which captive chimpanzees die, we obviously expect mortality, but no reasonable expert would hold this against us. We are like an end-of-life care facility and have the death-rate to go with it.”

There is no doubt that many retired chimpanzees are aged or have health concerns, as we and others have quite clearly and repeatedly acknowledged as a critical factor that should guide decision-making. The specific question raised by the recent deaths at CH, however, is not whether it is reasonable to expect older animals to die. Obviously, it is.

The current question—and focus of Buckmaster’s article, our post, and discussion in the community— is whether the high number of deaths following the recent transfer should be met with sufficient concern to elicit an engaged response aimed at identifying whether everything that can be done is done to reduce future risk to chimpanzees and to ensure their best possible care. As captured by Professor William Hopkins, chimpanzee researcher at Georgia State University and Director of the Ape Cognition and Conservation Institute:

We can debate those facts [provided in the post] in terms of what caused the higher incidences of death but, as you indicate, there are no definitive data at this point in time. …[Steve Ross] ended … by stating that lab and Chimp Haven folks should be working together to make sound decisions about chimpanzee well-being. I agree with this entirely but, in retrospect, it seems clear that the decision to move these specific 13 apes was a poor decision. No blame is necessary but simply a recognition of this fact and a commitment to not letting it happen again.”

Prof. Hopkins’ comment, along with others, hits the central point.  It is promising to see members of the zoo and sanctuary communities vocalize agreement with the research community on the need to put chimpanzees’ health and welfare at the center of joint efforts.  At the end of the day, however, the question is how to move forward to best inform decisions.

And the question remains: Are the recent deaths are viewed only as the expected outcome of transfers, requiring no need for recognition? Or should they instead merit consideration as potential evidence that procedures, or relocation plans, should be adjusted?

Chimpanzees at NCCC. Photo credit: Kathy West.

Dr. Ross, appears to argue that there is no cause for further reflection, nor for change, saying:

“As difficult as it is to discuss, death is very much a reality at an “end of life” facility such as a sanctuary. These chimpanzees may well have been well cared for by care and enrichment staff, but they have also been subjects of medical research which has in some cases has had very real health consequences. …objective readers of these facts must also realize the overtly misleading nature of comparing mortality rates of a small sample of aged chimps to overall death rates for a population. Chimpanzees that arrive at Chimp Haven are very often past the median life expectancy for the species (the average age of those chimpanzees from Bastrop that died at Chimp Haven was 42 years…. well over the median life expectancy for the species). These deaths were sad… and staff at both Bastrop and Chimp Haven mourned them. But they were neither the direct result of transfers nor were they completely unexpected given the demographic context of the species or the health status of these individuals.”

While his points about retired chimpanzees’ age are accurate, the implication that this set of chimpanzees were “subjects of medical research which has in some cases has had very real health consequences” is disputed by another commenter and remains unclear in absence of those animals’ records.

Thus, Ross’ implication—standing in contrast to his call for harmony and an end to “demonization”—was noted by other commenters. For example, Jennifer Bridges:

“I absolutely agree that we need to stop demonizing one another on this topic. Both facilities have a caring staff and the best intentions for their chimpanzees. However, in the same comment that you state that we should not be demonizing these facilities you also state that the 9 chimps that have died from the most recent transfer from the Keeling Center to Chimp Haven most likely had heath issues from use in research. In reality, many of those chimps were never used in medical research, ever. Implying that they were is further demonizing the Keeling Center which you have stated provides excellent, top of the line care. We all want what is best for these chimpanzees and hopefully we will be able to work together to do what’s best for them moving forward.”

Furthermore, as we’ve written previously, there is a long history of inaccurate statements about research facilities being used in promotional materials and arguments in favor of ending research and retiring animals. CH has previously engaged in exactly this kind of rhetoric (for example, here, here) and rarely acknowledges that research facilities such as NCCC can provide top of the line care for chimpanzees. Thus the irony of CH’s response to criticism was noted by other commenters as well. For example, veterinarian Dr. Thomas Rowell, who was the director of the NIRC for many years. Rowell reminds Ross that,

“The biomedical research community has for a long time been “unfairly characterized” when it comes to the care and use of chimpanzees and other animal models. There has been a lifetime of “demonizing” committed animal care givers and veterinarians who dedicate their life time to the profession and the animals under their care.

One can be sympathetic to commenters who react after having to endure statements such as “All invasive research is torture, and it’s not just the procedures. It’s the imprisonment. It’s being kept in a small space with no choice. You just are there. You’re powerless.” They use inflammatory statements like “chimpanzees have been infected with viruses, darted and sedated more than 100 times, and put through dozens of sometimes painful procedures”.

They describe a “better life” because of access to sun and grass for the “first time” when the reality is they have had access to the outdoors (including sun and grass) all that time. They mischaracterize there care by using descriptors for techniques of handling animals, that are common in zoos and sanctuaries, such as the use of “powerful and painful” dart guns and “frightening” squeeze cages for sedation. They do this so as to promote a political agenda and to misguide the public.

I agree with the last commenter. If we truly care about the welfare of these and other chimpanzees we should spend less time “demonizing”, on both sides.”

Chimpanzees in research, zoo, and sanctuary facilities
Chimpanzees in research, zoo, and sanctuary facilities

Prof. John Capitanio, a primate researcher at the California National Primate Research Center and a past President of the American Society of Primatologists, notes same frustration:

“A couple of years ago, I toured the chimpanzee facilities at MDAKC with one of the animal care people. I was totally blown away when she told me that, when animals were transferred from the Primate Foundation of Arizona to Bastrop several years earlier, she (and at least one other person) moved to Bastrop to be able to continue to care for the chimpanzees that had been under her care at PFA. That level of commitment is truly remarkable, and it really annoys me to have research institutions that obviously do a spectacular job of care, vilified in the way that they sometimes are, when they have people that are so dedicated that they will uproot their personal lives to move with their animals.”

What can we conclude?

In the end, none of the CH BOD provided acknowledgement, or any assurance, that the recent chimpanzee deaths had elicited sufficient concern to generate a new review of care procedures and decision-making about future transfers. Given that they appear to conclude the deaths are reasonable and expected, it seems possible that that they plan to simply continue the same course.

At the same time, Dr. William Satterfield, DVM, retired Keeling Center (now NCCC) veterinarian, called care practices at CH into question:

I personally visited Chimp Haven with a shipment of chimps that were being forced there by NIH from the Keeling Center. These animals had been provided state of the art behavioral and medical care at the Center were thrust into a minimal level care situations. They were unprepared at Chimp Haven to handle simple medical care that had been routinely provided at the Keeling Center. The supposed intent of NIH, doing the bidding of HSUS and similar organizations, to improve their care and save federal dollars, did neither, at the expense of the welfare of these animals. As a professional with over 30 years of caring for great apes, I had to hold my emotions and hope for the best for the animals. My worst fears have unfortunately become a reality for these animals.”

CH board members countered Satterfield and criticisms by others by pointing to their own experience with CH, as well as to its accreditation record with private agencies and its oversight by the USDA, a federal agency. Yet it remains true that the facts surrounding the recent deaths are largely unknown and not public. Nothing in the CH responses provided further illumination on those specific cases. From a reasonable public perspective, it appears that much remains unresolved with respect to confidence that examination of those cases can, and will, guide further decisions.

Summary:  Open questions for further consideration

1)  How should current experience inform decisions about future transfers?

2)  What are the other options for retired chimpanzees? Prof. Hopkins poses exactly this question:

Also, is it fair to ask everyone why it is the case that captive chimpanzees currently residing in labs cannot be retired in situ? If the sanctuary community acknowledges that some facilities provide excellent care (which is what I took from your piece), what is the financial and well-being rationale for moving them? For that matter, why is it that NIH has made the decision to only retire their chimpanzees to the Chimp Haven facility when other facilities, like ours in Des Moines, could accommodate some number of NIH-owned chimpanzees and provide excellent housing and care for them. None of these decisions make sense from a well-being and financial perspective. Let’s face the facts. Even in the best case scenario, given the retirement strategy that NIH has laid out, it will be many years before all their chimps are retired. So wouldn’t it better for chimpanzees, as a whole, if there were more options for their retirement rather than all the pressure to move them to Chimp Haven?”

We have addressed each of these questions in previous posts and articles and will continue to welcome dialogue on these points here, and in subsequent posts.

Speaking of Research


More at:

Bennett, A.J. (2015). The new era for chimpanzee research: Implications for broad ethical consideration and equitable treatment. Developmental Psychobiology, 57(3), 279-288.

Bennett, A.J. & Panicker, S. (2016). Broader impacts: International implications and integrative ethical consideration of policy decisions about US chimpanzee research. American Journal of Primatology, Epub ahead of print Jul 19.

Latzman, R.D. & Hopkins, W.D. (2016). Letter to the editor: Avoiding a lost opportunity for psychological medicine: Importance of chimpanzee research to the National Institutes of Health Portfolio. Psychol Med. Aug;46(11):2445-7. Epub Jun 10

7 thoughts on “Can we agree? An ongoing dialogue about where retired research chimpanzees should live

  1. I believe they are required to provide this information to NIH (who continues to own the chimpanzees and provides federal funds for their support) and, more significantly, supply investigators that had protocols on the federally owned chimpanzees with necropsy reports when they die. So I would recommend that Bastrop investigators request these reports directly from Chimp Haven and make them available to all of us that are interested in the future of these particular chimpanzees.

  2. The records may be available via a federal freedom of information act; however, it is not entirely clear that the sanctuary is required to provide clinical records, necropsy and pathology reports to NIH. Chimp Haven is not a research facility and may not be subject to the same provisions as a research facility. Also not clear that they are required to provide those records to USDA, unless they are part of an investigation by the federal oversight agency.

  3. How can anyone (especially Speaking of Research) engage in meaningful discussion without sharing the necropsy and pathology reports of the nine chimpanzees that died after arriving at Chimp Haven?

    1. We would be happy to share the necropsy and pathology reports if Chimp Haven provides them.

      1. Thank you – I very much hope that Chimp Haven supplies them. In any event shouldn’t these be available through the freedom of information act?

  4. Given that there is quite a lot of research showing that relocating animals has direct, measurable and significant effects on the immune system, perhaps that would be worth referencing in this piece? Regardless of the quality of care on the receiving end, there is a certain amount of stress imposed on any relocated animal which needs to be carefully weighed when considering cost and benefit of moving chimpanzees.

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