Public dialogue about US research chimpanzee retirement: Unanswered questions

Growing concerns about NIH’s plan for retired research chimpanzees summarized in a WIRED article last week continue to provoke more questions than answers. These questions fall into three general areas discussed below. In many cases, they are questions that could stem simply from a lack of transparent, public information. One example of this is found in the reported deaths of nine chimpanzees within 18-months of transfer to the federal sanctuary, Chimp Haven. Whether the number of deaths is higher than expected given the age, health, and average mortality rates for chimpanzees is unclear and has not been addressed with public, factual information about what happened to those nine animals.

Similarly missing is information needed for serious consideration and public dialogue about the plan for relocating chimpanzees; continuing research with retired chimpanzees; and the processes and standards in place for chimpanzee care, external oversight, and public transparency across different types of facilities. Rather than addressing these questions, some have instead simply dismissed “the lab community” as unfair critics of the federal sanctuary (for example, Chimp Haven’s CEO).  That response fails to answer what should be common concerns not only across the many communities that care about chimpanzees, but also more broadly to the public that ultimately provides support for the animals, the research, and the policies that set the framework for decisions that govern chimpanzee care across the many facilities in which they live.

Three sets of questions—largely unanswered—that are integral to informed, serious, public consideration of the future of US chimpanzees are summarized below. They are:

Photo credit: Kathy West

Photo credit: Kathy West

  • Chimpanzee health and well-being: Is everything that can be done to ensure the best care, health, and well-being of the chimpanzees being done?
  • Research:  Should federally-supported retired research chimpanzees within sanctuaries be involved in research?
  • Decisions and evidence: What is the process for decision-making?  How are conflicts of interests handled?  What kind of evidence supports the decisions about chimpanzee health and well-being?

1)  Chimpanzee health and well-being: Is everything that can be done to ensure the best care, health, and well-being of the chimpanzees being done?

First and foremost are questions about the animals’ health and well-being.  The primary question here is whether relocation is the best option for all of the chimpanzees. A number of posts here have provided detail about the issue. The main consideration is whether decisions about the transfer of chimpanzees from their current homes to a new home are adequately informed to ensure the best outcome for each animal. Of particular concern is whether there is a process for examining previous outcomes in order to identify whether changes are needed.

The latter is exactly why the deaths of 9 of 13 chimpanzees transferred from the National Center for Chimpanzee Care (Bastrop) to the federally-supported sanctuary, Chimp Haven, continue to raise questions.  The questions are not—as has been repeatedly emphasized—about the quality of care at Chimp Haven. Nor are they about population-level mortality analysis as was conducted and reported in a yet-to-be-reviewed manuscript posted by a scientist at NIH (see below for further discussion). Rather, as would be the case in most facilities that operate under federal license or registration with the USDA,  the question is whether the circumstances surrounding those deaths has been reviewed carefully and thoughtfully in order to inform future practices and decisions in a way that minimizes future risk and ensures the best outcomes for the chimpanzees. For example, it would be logical to ask whether the circumstances surrounding the deaths were examined by the USDA, or whether NIH commissioned, or requested, any evaluation of the deaths. This would be common procedure in any facility subject to USDA oversight.

Chimpanzees in research, zoo, and sanctuary facilities

Chimpanzees in research, zoo, and sanctuary facilities

Consideration of decisions about relocation goes far beyond these nine deaths, however. There are a number of factors that inform concerns about the plan to transfer chimpanzees from their current homes. Among them: 1) the animals’ age and health; 2) the consequences of relocation, including disruption of existing social groups and separation from long-time environments and caregivers, introduction into novel environments, with novel caregivers, and chimpanzees; 3) the time-span over which the transfers will occur.

All of these factors underlie questions about the end result of the recently announced plan to move all NIH-owned and supported chimpanzees to Chimp Haven over the next 10 years. As summarized by a commenter on our previous post:

“I have read with bewilderment the recent NIH announcement about their plan to retire the remaining chimpanzees housed at Alamogordo, Bastrop and Southwest Foundation and the press release from HSUS applauding the plan and their appreciation of all the effort by Dr. Collins and NIH have made to implement the plan. Why should anyone be excited about this plan? From what I read, their plan is attrition. For presumably the next 10 years, NIH is going to watch and monitor the chimpanzee mortality rate at Chimp Haven and fill the vacancies with chimpanzees currently residing at APF, Bastrop and then Southwest (the NIH preferred order). How can attrition and replacement be considered a reasonable and humane retirement plan by either the research community or animal welfare advocates?”

2) Research: Should federally-supported retired research chimpanzees within sanctuaries be involved in research? 

The announcement of a partnership with the Lincoln Park Zoo, funded by a private agency (Arcus Foundation), apparently part of broader effort to promote research with chimpanzees at the federally-funded retirement facility raised a host of questions. On the one hand is the obvious question about why chimpanzees retired from research should be the source of fundraising in order to conduct research (see here). The very definition of sanctuary and what differentiates a sanctuary from a zoo or a research facility was also raised by the announcement (see here).

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Photo credit: Kathy West

There are many who do support ongoing behavioral, psychological, cognitive, genomic, neural and other noninvasive research. This is the very same conclusion that was reached by the Institute of Medicine committee that reviewed the necessity of chimpanzee research (see report here). But the announcement of a research program at Chimp Haven raised many questions about how the research conducted there now, and in the future, will be overseen. For example, in contrast to well-established and transparent practices for decisions about NIH, NSF, or other federally-funded research, there appears to be little public information about the process for research approval and conduct of research at Chimp Haven.

The broad questions surrounding research at Chimp Haven are whether information about the review, oversight, and transparency of research projects is available and where it can be found. Moreover, the announcement that the sanctuary intends to recruit scientists and more research raises questions about whether there should be further consideration and open dialogue about whether the processes put into place by the private facility are appropriate for research conducted with animals who receive 75% of their support from federal sources.

Questions include: What is the process for deciding whether, and which, research projects are conducted with federally-supported chimpanzees within the sanctuary? What are the mechanisms for external oversight, transparency, and ethics review of the research proposals? How are perceived and actual conflicts of interests handled? The answer to these questions at present appears to be that Chimp Haven has a review board that operates as an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) for the facility. In general though, there is not enough information about process to inform serious and thoughtful consideration. For example, among other questions, it is not clear that the facility has a scientific merit review or a mechanism to guard against conflicts of interests or to promote equitable access.

3)  Decisions and evidence: What is the process for decision-making?  How are conflicts of interests handled?  What kind of evidence supports the decisions about chimpanzee health and well-being?

A third set of questions that have become of increasing concern as events, decisions, and announcements about chimpanzee retirement unfold surround processes for decision-making. Again, the issue here is about unanswered questions in response to community concern and public interest. The two previous points highlight a number of questions rooted in “process.” Most recently, the issue of what kinds of evidence should be used to inform decision-making was put into sharp relief by the appearance of an analysis of chimpanzee mortality across dedicated research centers and the federal sanctuary. That report was posted online, ahead of peer-review or publication in a scientific journal, and the day before NIH’s announcement that all NIH-owned chimpanzees would move to Chimp Haven over a 10-year period.

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Photo credit: Kathy West

While it may not be entirely clear to those outside the scientific community, the online article had not been subjected to review – either via comments online, in an open-access venue, or by expert peer-review. Peer-review  is normally conducted by scientific journals and is part of online publication as well.  Peer review is an important part of the scientific process. In brief, the purpose of such review is to identify potential flaws in the study design, analysis, or interpretation of the data. The process of review then requires the author to address criticisms. In some cases, the criticisms are rebutted and the paper improved by clarifications. In other cases, the criticisms cannot be rebutted because the study, analysis, or interpretation is flawed.

What is important to remember is simple. Confidence in the conclusions of a study, particularly one for which criticisms have been raised and not yet addressed, should be measured accordingly. Yet, already the conclusions of this article have been cited as “proof” for a position about relocating chimpanzees. For example, in a posting from the Jane Goodall Institute:

“As animal transfers are sometimes considered potentially harmful, it is satisfying to note it was found that there is no proven link between relocation and premature death of captive chimpanzees.

In fact, the article cited does not substantively address the claim. Rather, as chimpanzee research expert, Professor William Hopkins, points out, “the analyses performed in the study are not designed to test for a “link” between relocation and premature death. As others have noted, this would require an analysis of the mortality rate of chimpanzees transferred to Chimp Haven be compared with age-sex matched apes that are not transferred. These kinds of comparisons that are necessary to make these inferences are absent in the paper as it is currently written.”

Thus, not only do a number of questions and criticisms of the article remain unanswered, but it is also true that the mortality analysis does not address the fundamental point for which it is being cited as supporting. What the analysis does appear to show is that many – perhaps most—of the retired chimpanzees are likely to die before they are transferred. From data presented in Figure 4 of the paper, it appears that roughly 20% of the chimpanzee population would be predicted to die within 3 years and that less than 40% will be alive in 9 years. By extension, of the animals who are now slated to move within the 10 year period announced by NIH, it could be the case that only 30% will be alive at that point. Again, however, conclusions based on this analysis should be viewed with caution. Nonetheless, if this interpretation were true then it would seem that the majority of chimpanzees will, in fact, remain in their current homes for a substantial amount of time. In turn, several considerations and new discussions of alternatives might be raised– as they were in comments that we will return to in a subsequent post.

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Chimpanzees at NCCC. Photo credit: Kathy West.

Furthermore, the NIH plan and discussion surrounding it has yet to reveal how the mortality analysis will inform decisions at the level of the individual chimpanzee. Given that age is nearly certain to be the biggest mortality predictor, the question is whether the oldest animals will be the least or the most likely to move first? In the NIH plan, age is ranked ahead of existing social group as a consideration for priority in relocation to sanctuary. The question there is – given social groups are generally comprised of animals of mixed ages—will groups be prioritized for movement based on the age and health of the oldest members?

Decisions about the priority order for moving chimpanzees are undoubtedly incredibly difficult and must account for complicated sets of factors. Whether there should be transparency in those decisions, at the level of the individual animals, is one of the main questions that arose in discussion of the deaths of 9 NCCC chimpanzees transferred to the federally-funded sanctuary. It arose for the simple reason that Chimp Haven’s CEO, in defending her facility, raised pointed questions about the decision to transfer particular animals. She claimed:

“…the selection of the individuals to be transferred was not made by Chimp Haven, or even The National Institutes of Health, but by the laboratory itself.  In fact, Chimp Haven has never had a say in selecting any individuals for retirement despite the fact that we have advocated for such a role to ensure that these retirement transfers were best planned and operated. So one might reasonably question why several of the transferred chimpanzees were placed on “quality of life” watch prior to transfer. Or why most of the transferred chimpanzees were well beyond the median life expectancy for the species.”

Whether this is true or not cannot be easily – if at all– discerned by the public. Why? Because the process of decision-making is mostly not transparent in public view. As a result, competing claims cannot be fully evaluated with any serious, thoughtful consideration by members of the public, nor by the media, policy-makers, or members of the research, sanctuary, and zoo communities. Nor does it appear that there is any mechanism for unanswered questions to be addressed. There are many things that are troubling about the situation. From the perspective of dialogue and community efforts to guide decisions in the best interests of the animals’ health and well-being, research, and public support, the continuing lack of response to questions or perceived criticism is among the largest of the obstacles to progress and understanding.

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Photo credit: Kathy West

Summary.  One of the goals of Speaking of Research is to provide a place for public dialogue about ongoing events, perspectives, and consideration of animal research. We hope that the questions posed above might help move the dialogue forward with answers to questions that remain unaddressed and information that can fill gaps in public knowledge. In turn, the answers may help provide a better understanding of the situation and a more thoughtful, broad public consideration of the future for retired chimpanzees and for chimpanzee research.

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5 responses to “Public dialogue about US research chimpanzee retirement: Unanswered questions

  1. Pingback: Looking Back, Looking Forward – Welcoming in 2017 | Speaking of Research

  2. Jenny Brejcha

    If the chimps were to retire in situ, would the scientific community be willing to cease all experiments that provide funding, grants, salaries, and any other forms of compensation derived from research? Would the scientific community stick around to provide care for the chimps, especially when their salaries are reduced to “Care-Giver”?

    • Jenny, Actually these chimps who will be retired to Chimp Haven will be subjects in research studies that are very similar to
      The types of studies they have been participating in for years.

    • Jenny,
      Excellent question!
      The “scientific community” ceased experimental studies over 3 years ago following NIH’s formal moratorium on all invasive studies and transitioned to “retirement in place” programs. Even prior to that time the vast majority of the animals were not on any studies, except non-invasive behavioral observation studies.
      All of the efforts since then have been expended on advanced care giving to an aging colony, “care-giving. A lot of the chimpanzees in fact, have never been on any study. Some were even from Goodall research studies conducted long ago and were retired to social groups years ago at NIH supported research facilities.
      I have to say that it feels as though the expensive, dangerous efforts to relocate large numbers of medically fragile, aged animals is politically congratulatory and self-serving by the national humane groups and not in the long range interest of the welfare of the animals.

  3. It is regrettable that the people in a position to affect the future health and well-being of these animals are making decisions based upon thin datasets, flawed analyses and poor assumptions. The NIH, of all agencies, should be prepared to only make data-driven decisions that reflect scientific consensus and that survive scientific scrutiny. That is not happening here, and it’s the animals and the progress of scientific inquiry that are suffering.

    Taking animals from their current homes and social groups, as well as away from the incredibly skilled professionals that are currently providing unimpeachable care for them, should be something we only do when the benefits clearly and unambiguously outweigh the harm. That is not the case here, and I fear more animals will die because of the hasty and impulsive (and, it seems, plainly political) decision to relocate and retire them away from their current homes.