Monkeys, research, retirement, and public interests: Fact and relevant considerations

June 21, 2019

Recent news about monkey sanctuaries, combined with a couple of legislative efforts narrowly targeted at animals in research at federal agencies, have stimulated media coverage and other discussions about the when, why, and how of research animal retirement.

The stories have in common a feel-good and “why not?” flavor. The general subject is about monkeys who were in biomedical and behavioral research aimed at advancing scientific knowledge and medical progress. The general storyline is about moving these animals to sanctuary facilities to live out their days in peace, with toys, treats, and loving caregivers concerned only with the well-being of the animals.

The alternative? As pitched in some stories, euthanasia. Why? Well, from reading the stories, the only obstacles to sending research monkeys to sanctuaries are cost, lack of a requirement, or absence of motivation. As with most things, however, the real story is a bit more complicated.

In fact, a primary reason that monkeys are not sent to sanctuaries is that many scientific studies depend upon analyzing tissues (e.g., brain, liver, cardiac and other systems) after the animals have been humanely euthanized. Other studies focus on aging and development, which necessitate studying older animals. In both cases, a critical part of the rationale and ethical justification for using nonhuman animals is that the information necessary to address the question and advance understanding of health could not be obtained otherwise. In the case of research aimed at uncovering the causes of some diseases that involve the brain, for example, examining brain tissues from humans who have died because of the disease will often not provide crucial information about molecular changes in the brain during the early stages of the disease. That information is key to understanding the disease mechanisms and to inform development of prevention or treatments to stop the disease before it progresses. Similarly, studies of nonhuman animals are often conducted because they permit the type of experimental control that is necessary to establish causal relationships. That control could not be accomplished in a human study, thus providing the critical rationale for using nonhuman animals to find the answer.

Therefore, although there are some animals that are no longer needed in research following the end of a study, many others continue to be needed. To our knowledge, there is no current estimate of what that number may be.

Marmoset. Photo Credit: Photo by Kathy West Studios, Courtesy of Texas Biomedical Research Institute

Dogs, cats, rabbits and other domesticated animals retired from research can be (and often are) adopted into private homes. Nonhuman primates cannot be appropriately or safely sent to private homes. To ensure their health, well-being, and safety requires specialized veterinary, psychological, and behavioral expertise, along with appropriate housing and medical care facilities. Further, nonhuman primates are long-lived and may require stable support and care for 10-20 years or more. That includes specialty health care to prevent and treat disease and health problems that often occur in the natural course of aging. Research facilities typically have dedicated veterinarians whose specialty training focuses on care of nonhuman primates. Many also have experts in the psychological well-being and behavior of nonhuman primates, extensive clinical facilities for the animals’ health care, facilities for diagnosis of health problems, and so on. The resources and expertise dedicated to primate care in research facilities can be difficult to replicate within sanctuaries and thus can raise legitimate questions about adequate care. Fewer mechanisms for external oversight and public transparency about animal care within sanctuaries can elicit further concern (see discussion and sources below).

These are only a few examples of the complexity not readily conveyed in many of the stories about research animal retirement. Speaking of Research believes that the full story deserves attention because it is serious, fact-informed consideration that can provide for sound public policy. And in this case, it is public policy, public health, and public funding—among other things—that stand to be affected by decisions. Further, those decisions will have reverberating effects that extend beyond the US and the current generation.

We’ve written extensively about the topic, primarily in the context of decisions about chimpanzees owned by the National Institutes of Health (see 2011, 2015, 2016, 2018; complete list below; also see media coverage of the protracted retirement process). In the case of monkey research, many of the same concerns apply. There are, however, significant differences. Here we address some of the key points.

How do you like your policy? Fact-informed or just emotional?

Ethical judgment is often a good basis for public policy–though, arguably, that would depend on which of a range of moral frameworks one adopts and how they affect those individuals and groups who will be subject to, or affected by, the decision-making. In the case of scientific research with nonhuman animals, there are a good number of appeals to public opinion that surround the idea of ethical obligation. The way the topic is often cast is that:

  1. Animals in research deserve retirement and lifelong care
  2. Retirement to sanctuaries ensures good animal well-being
  3. All, or most, animals can be retired without harm to the science for which they were bred and maintained
  4. Public expenditure for retirement is justified regardless of cost

Below we provide information relevant to discussion these arguments. Our goal here is to inform a broader, serious, and fact-informed consideration of a topic that too often is portrayed in a simple way in the public sphere. We believe that it is important to put the full case, including detailed analysis of potential long-term impacts, in front of decision-makers—policymakers and the public. Conversely, we believe that it is irresponsible, at best, to portray research animal retirement as a simple path with no risks to the animals, science, or public.

Similarities and differences between chimpanzee and monkey retirement

Many of the themes in the current press coverage and legislative efforts are similar to those that unfolded during consideration of chimpanzee research and retirement. They include concern for the animals’ well-being and jeopardy of scientific research that benefits humans and other animals. In parallel to the process that ultimately resulted in large and ongoing public expenditures for the lifetime care of retired chimpanzees, the amount and source of funds for monkey retirement is also part of the media coverage.

Monkeys aren’t chimpanzees, nor is monkey research just like chimpanzee research from scientific, public policy, or pragmatic perspectives. In fact, the only place chimpanzees and monkeys might be considered exactly the same is in an absolutist perspective in which all animals are the same. That is, the perspective that all animals deserve the same rights as humans, or that no animals should be “used” by humans for any purpose (see here, here, or here for discussion of foundational arguments and absolutism). From the absolutist, or “rights” perspective, neither chimpanzees nor monkeys—or any other nonhuman animal—should be used for research, bred and maintained in zoos, be subject to private ownership for the purpose of entertainment, or as a pet. Although these are all different purposes, none would be ethically acceptable.

By contrast, in the US and elsewhere, ethical frameworks and laws about the use of primates and other animals in research are based in balancing potential benefit and consideration of animal well-being (read more here). The US system requires a justification for the specific type of animal used in the research. Proposals for the use of animals must address whether non-animal alternatives are available and feasible to answer the scientific question and, if so, then the science would dictate that the alternative be used. Similarly, if studies of a fruit-fly, zebra-fish, or mouse could answer the scientific question, then these species should be used rather than nonhuman primates. Within this framework, decisions about the use of both chimpanzees and monkeys depend upon the scientific question, the availability of alternatives, the potential benefit of the research, and the animals’ well-being. As a result, there are significant differences in the use, type, and number of apes and monkeys in research.

Differences between consideration of research chimpanzee and monkey retirement

Among the significant dissimilarities in public policy consideration of chimpanzee and monkey research are the type of research and public health questions addressed. Both chimpanzee and monkey research span from observational to invasive studies. Behavior, cognition, social and psychological processes, physiological function, immunology, genetics, and a wide range of other behavioral and biomedical areas have involved studies of chimpanzees and monkeys. At the same time, monkeys are much more widely used than chimpanzees, particularly in studies of infectious disease, neuroscience, and aging (NIH report, Figures 6-8 here).

In turn, there are differences in scale. For example, in 2015, the population of research chimpanzees was just over 700 (for historical and current data, see here). The number of monkeys living in research facilities in 2017 was 110,194. Moreover, the research chimpanzee population size was affected by other legislation and decisions. Among them:

  • No import of research chimpanzees for many decades prior to decisions
  • Ban on breeding chimpanzees for research
  • Prohibition of euthanasia except in cases where quality of life was affected by disease or other health problems

By contrast, roughly between 20-30,000 monkeys were imported from overseas breeding facilities in each of the past three years (here). Unlike the situation for chimpanzees in research, both the NIH primate centers and commercial facilities breed monkeys for research. Doing so reduces the need to import animals from abroad and facilitates developmental research (e.g., research on prenatal and infant health) and research with stable colonies composed of animals with known histories (ex. Table 5 here). Finally, in contrast to chimpanzee research, a significant proportion of scientific work with monkeys explicitly involves euthanasia because answering the scientific questions requires analysis of post mortem tissue, as described above.

Together, these differences between policies and practices for chimpanzees and monkeys mean that the number of animals in use, or available for use, in research differs greatly. Furthermore, unlike the case of chimpanzees, where sanctuary retirement combined with a breeding ban resulted in an overall decrease in the research population, both breeding and importation of additional monkeys could easily compensate for the movement of monkeys to sanctuaries. In other words, the overall number of animals in research could increase.

Scope of legislative efforts

In contrast to chimpanzees, in 2016 and 2017, between one-third to almost one-half of research monkeys in the US were owned by commercial facilities– pharmaceutical companies, contract research organizations, and companies that supply animals to private and public research (data here). The numbers and ownership are relevant to public policy for several reasons. Among them is that the current legislative initiatives address only federally owned animals. For instance, one initiative addresses NIH-owned monkeys, roughly 4,572 within the NIH intramural research program and another 3,144 in a National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease program managed by a private company. Together these comprise less than 10% of the US total. None of the current legislative initiatives is aimed at extramural NIH-funded research, which includes the seven National Primate Research Centers and roughly 24% of the total research monkeys in the US (26,516 in 2017).

Click to enlarge. From:

In the case of chimpanzees, legislation that focused on animals owned by, or supported by, the NIH immediately affected the vast majority of research chimpanzees. Given the distribution of research monkeys, the immediate effect of similar legislation (i.e., focused on NIH-owned animals) would affect a relatively small proportion of the US total. Another reason that scale and numbers are important is that they are key to determining how expert care and housing could be provided to the animals, including consideration of its cost, associated infrastructure, and expansion of facilities. Each of these is critically important to animal health and well-being.

What does retirement mean in the context of considering nonhuman animals?  

One premise of many appeals to retire research animals is the idea that research harms animals and that human society—the beneficiaries of the research—should compensate the animals for those harms. The first assumption in the premise is about societal obligation and is like a great many other public decisions about needs and distribution of resources. In this case, the parallel may be the question of whether there should be a guarantee of housing, food, and medical care to all citizens, to citizens unable to provide for themselves, or to those who have served society. The key difference, of course, is that here we are considering nonhuman animals, rather than humans. Whether human society views the two as equivalent in ethical consideration is a public question.

There are also different models, or approaches, to thinking about the concept of retirement more generally. For humans, we often think about retirement as a reward of leisure time following a lifetime of productive employment or service. The “reward” model is often associated with relatively affluent countries. Another meaning of retirement, however, is often talked about in terms of no longer being able to make meaningful contributions, no longer needed for a previous job or use, or replaced. The idea of putting someone, or something, “out to pasture” because they (or it) are no longer needed reflects this second meaning of retirement. And, of course, retirement could mean the end of productive employment or service with little guarantee of leisure or ability to provide for oneself.

One basic question to ask is which model we apply to research animals: no longer needed, or reward of leisure time? The answer can lead to different conclusions. For instance, if we apply the model of “no longer needed,” then retirement is often ruled out by the scientific value and benefit of studying aging animals and their tissue, or by the need for terminal studies. Simply put, there is not a point at which the animals are no longer needed in research. Some studies require terminal endpoints, including research on infectious disease, vaccine development, gene therapies, stem cell therapies, organ transplant, and many studies of brain function and disease. A range of health topics addressed by scientific studies of monkeys include questions about lifespan development and aging and depend upon breeding colonies of animals and animals maintained into old age. Those include studies of prenatal health, child health, asthma, aging, diabetes, memory, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and other diseases and challenges to lifespan development and health of humans and other animals. Scientific research also can depend on examining brain and other tissues that are maintained in large tissue banks funded by the NIH.

In sum, many nonhuman primates in research cannot be retired without jeopardizing the scientific goals for which they were brought into the research setting and for which the benefit of doing such research, as opposed to the harms of not doing it, have already been assessed. In turn, the “no longer needed” model of retirement does not fit.

On the other hand, we may apply the model in which a period of leisure time is rewarded following a lifetime of productive employment or service. In this case, we ask the question of whether research animals inherently deserve a post-research through end of life period of housing and care. And some would argue that this is true.

In fact, the federally funded chimpanzee sanctuary uses this model. It does so for a set of reasons. First, the alternative—that the animals continue to contribute to scientific research—was ruled out via a series of decisions by NIH. Second, the alternative of humane euthanasia was ruled out through public consideration. Finally, the US public, through its elected representatives, passed legislation that ensured creation and public funding for lifetime care and housing of retired research chimpanzees. The retirement model used for chimpanzees would result in a number of downsides if it were applied to monkeys in research, and each of these bears consideration in the weighing of harms and benefits associated with different decisions. Among them are:

  • Lost potential for scientific knowledge and full benefit following the animals’ life in a research setting
  • Lost potential for future research, or long time-lags to breed and allow for development of new animals for research
  • Possibility of increased number of animals overall as those that are retired are replaced by others
  • Possibility of increased import of animals to replace those retired

What is similar and different about standards, oversight, and public transparency of research facilities and sanctuaries?

Arguments about research animal retirement often center on the idea that research necessarily harms the animals and that sanctuary retirement ensures positive animal well-being. To make the full case, both ideas require further examination and evidence. We’ve discussed both previously and provide a synopsis here. First, as was shown in many of the discussions of research chimpanzee retirement, evaluating the well-being of animals is not a simple matter of determining which type of facility they live in—zoo, sanctuary, research. Rather, the question surrounds aspects of their physical and psychological care. Evaluating whether the animals are harmed by research is also not straightforward (except from an absolutist perspective in which captivity—by itself—is viewed as a harm).

Overview of animal research regulation in the US. Click to enlarge.

Facilities housing nonhuman primates are subject to variable standards, external oversight, and public transparency. That variation has been described in detail previously (see SR posts listed below; also Bennett & Panicker, 2016). In brief, in the US, nonhuman primates used in research, breeding, entertainment, and zoos fall under federal statute, the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), with compliance monitored by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA’s inspection reports are available to the public via provisions of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Further, the USDA offers a mechanism for complaints about animal welfare to be investigated by an external agency. There are differences, however, in how research facilities, zoos, sanctuaries, and other facilities are regulated. Research facilities must be registered with the USDA and must provide an annual report on the number of animals they house. Zoos, dealers, breeders and other must be licensed by the USDA. Sanctuaries do not have to be licensed or registered with the USDA. Some elect to seek an exhibitor license, however, and that license is required for sanctuaries who are members of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance (NAPSA; here).* Further, voluntary accreditation can also be obtained via some private organizations such as the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS; here). NAPSA alliance members must either be accredited by GFAS or receive certification from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

A larger difference between research facilities and sanctuaries is that federally-funded research falls under another set of standards and oversight by a second federal agency, the NIH’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW). To maintain compliance, research facilities must adhere to a detailed set of standards produced by the National Research Council (NRC), the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals (pdf here). As with the USDA, records of oversight by OLAW are publicly accessible via FOIA. USDA and OLAW oversight are different from that private accreditation agencies because they offer public transparency of external oversight. In other words, although research facilities, zoos, and sanctuaries may be accredited by various private agencies, none can serve the same function as federal agencies with respect to public assurance and monitoring of animal care and well-being.

Financial resources and expertise in medical and other care also vary across facilities, particularly as sanctuaries tend to be dependent upon, and affected by fluctuations in, private donations. It is the latter concern that likely makes a guarantee of stable federal funding a high priority for many of the facilities.

Feasibility of providing sustainable and stable long-term care: Would the US public support spending $45 million, $680 million, or $8.9 billion to retire monkeys?

At present there are few detailed analyses of the estimated cost to retire research monkeys. Further, there does not appear to be any complete plan offered to inform serious public consideration. A few estimates can be derived as a starting place for considering the cost of monkey retirement1. According to the 2017 annual report to the USDA, there were just over 8,400 monkeys at NIH and other federal facilities. To retire and cover the cost of one year of care for these animals ($5,400 per year, see detail below) would be $45,360,000. To provide 10-15 years of care would be between ~$450-$680M. That cost would cover just under 8% of nonhuman primates in research in the US. To provide for 1 year of retirement care for 100% of research monkeys in the US (110,194 monkeys; 2017 data) would cost roughly $595M and 15 years of care over $8.9B.

None of these estimates includes the cost to build and expand sanctuary facilities, none of which are currently equipped to house thousands of additional animals. Moreover, in contrast to established research facilities that have onsite healthcare providers and infrastructure for specialty medical care, including care for aging animals, it is unclear what additional investment would be required for sanctuaries to provide the same level of healthcare. Further, as discussed above, the number of animals no longer needed in research is unknown. Nonetheless, stable long-term funding is clearly key to animal welfare and ability to provide adequate facilities and care, as was evidenced by previous bankruptcies and problems at some sanctuaries and the ongoing challenges to raising sufficient funds for others.

No easy answers

The considerations summarized in this post are among the many that surround the topic of research primate retirement. Each of them merits full consideration and additional fact seeking in order to provide the basis for informed public decision-making that can weigh benefits, harms, trade-offs, short, and long-term consequences. Speaking of Research urges those considering the broad picture, or talking with others– including legislators and the media– to encourage serious, fact-informed, and full discussion of the topic. It is not an easy topic and not one that should be portrayed as a simple set of choices with few downsides.

Speaking of Research

[*Updated 6/25/19 to clarify that NAPSA does not provide accreditation to sanctuaries, but membership in the alliance requires a facility to have a USDA license and either accreditation from GFAS or certification from the AZA.]

1 Cost calculations: Estimates on the cost to retire a single monkey appear occasionally in media stories or on a sanctuary website. For example, a small Indiana facility housing roughly 30 animals, estimates that it costs $15 per day to care for a baboon, or roughly $5,400 per year. The director of a new monkey sanctuary in Wisconsin that houses 6 monkeys, was quoted with the estimate of $12,000 a year to care for a retired monkey. The lifespan of a monkey in captive settings can be 25-30 years. Assuming that a monkey is retired at 10 years old, at least 15-20 years of care may be needed. Working from the costs quoted above, retirement care would then cost between ~$80,000 – $240,000 for a single animal. The estimate does not include building or expanding sanctuary facilities, none of which are currently equipped to house additional thousands of animals.

Links and further reading at Speaking of Research:
8/12/11: Facts must inform discussion of future of chimpanzee research
10/13/11: Guest post:  Efforts to ban chimpanzee research are misguided
11/21/11: A closer look at the great ape protection act
12/8/2011: What cost savings?  A closer look at the great ape protection and cost savings act of 2011
12/17/11: Afterthoughts on IOM report on the use of chimpanzees in scientific research
2/9/15: Chimpanzee retirement: Facts, myths, and motivation
12/5/15: Where should US chimpanzees live?
7/14/16: Do politics trump chimpanzee well-being?  Questions raised about deaths of US research chimpanzees at federally funded sanctuary.
8/1/16: Can we agree?  An ongoing dialogue about where retired research chimpanzees should live
8/3/16:  Zoo-sanctuary partnership:  Lincoln Park Zoo and federally funded retired chimpanzee sanctuary announce new research program
8/10/16: Sanctuary, zoo, lab:  Name games or core differences?
8/12/16: What is science?
8/25/16:  Public dialogue about US research chimpanzee retirement: Unanswered questions
More at:  Bennett, A.J. & Panicker, S. (2016). Broader impacts: International implications and integrative ethical consideration of policy decisions about US chimpanzee research. Am J Primatology, 78(12), 1282-1303. PMID 27434183


2 thoughts on “Monkeys, research, retirement, and public interests: Fact and relevant considerations

  1. I must point out an error: primate sanctuaries are not accredited by the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance (NAPSA), they are members of the alliance. Requirements for NAPSA membership include a USDA license (as you mentioned) but also accreditation by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries or certification from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, whose certification program was developed specifically for non-zoo facilities.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Erika. The post has been updated to provide that correction.

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