Opinion or fact? Chimp Haven should provide the public with evidence and data to inform critical decisions about retired chimpanzee health and well-being

Yesterday we wrote about NIH’s announcement that 44 elderly and/or frail chimpanzees would be retired in place at the Alamogordo Primate Facility instead of being transferred to the federal sanctuary, Chimp Haven (CH). The announcement drew a range of responses and media coverage. Responses that were critical of NIH’s decision came from leadership associated with Chimp Haven and organizations like the Humane Society of the US (HSUS). Comments from NIH and CH leadership reported in a Science Insider article illustrate the differences of opinion.

NIH emphasized priority of the animals’ health and well-being and veterinarian recommendations:

“Some of these animals are quite old and very frail. It was just going to be too unsafe to move all of them,” says NIH Deputy Director James Anderson, whose division oversees the NIH Chimpanzee Management Program. “We’re not going to take the risk.”

Photo by Kathy West. CC-BY-NC-SA.

Dr. Stephen Ross, chair of CH’s Board of Directors and Director of the Center for the Study and Conservation of Great Apes at Lincoln Park Zoo (LPZ), a zoo that houses chimpanzees within the city of Chicago, also weighed in.

In contrast to NIH’s statement, Ross “laments the decision.” As reported by Science:

“We’re disappointed,” says Stephen Ross, the sanctuary’s board chair. “We believe that every chimpanzee should have the opportunity to live out the rest of their life in a sanctuary, and we’re concerned this decision will set a precedent for other chimps still waiting to be retired.”

The Humane Society of the US weighed in by threatening legal action and launching a public petition to reverse the decision.

“We are putting the NIH on notice that this fight is not over. …We’re evaluating our options for judicial review to compel the NIH to honor its obligation under the Chimpanzee Health Improvement and Maintenance Protection Act, which requires that all government-owned chimpanzees deemed no longer necessary for research should be retired to the national sanctuary. The NIH has a responsibility to all Americans to ensure that these animals, who have suffered their whole lives, finally get the quality of life — and a retirement — they deserve, at Chimp Haven.”

We’ve written previously about why the sanctuary was created; US legislation that led to ongoing federal support for the creation and maintenance of a federally-funded sanctuary; the decision-making process for moving chimpanzees; continuing federal investment to care for chimpanzees at CH; and controversies over how the animals are housed and cared for in the sanctuary.

But there are more fundamental questions that have received less attention and that are highlighted in consideration of some responses to the NIH decisions. Among them is the evidence and data that should be made publicly available to inform those interested in serious consideration of the best outcomes for the animals.

Much of the criticism of yesterday’s decisions, including the comments from CH and HSUS, focused on opinions and statements that did not include any corroborating data.

  • For instance, CH Board Chair Steve Ross said: “There are tremendous benefits of getting them in the large, dynamic social groups we have at Chimp Haven,” he says, in which chimps “meet new friends and in most cases keep old friends, too.” He also says many (though not all) of the animals at Chimp Haven are free to climb trees and roam large, open-topped, grassy enclosures—something they can’t do at Alamogordo. “The benefits of sending these animals to a sanctuary far outweigh the risks.” (emphases added)
  • CH CEO Rana Smith said: “We respect the medical opinions of the veterinary panel and appreciate that this was likely not an easy recommendation because it is impossible to accurately predict chimpanzee health and longevity. At Chimp Haven, we’ve seen the health and behavior of many chimpanzees improve, including those who are geriatric, fragile and came to the sanctuary socially challenged. We firmly believe sanctuary life is the best place for chimpanzees.” (emphases added)
  • Kitty Block, HSUS CEO said: “We know that chimpanzees who are sent to sanctuary see an immense improvement in the quality of their lives. Since the inception of Chimp Haven, hundreds of chimpanzees, of all ages and health conditions, have moved there. There has not been a single death during transport and there are incredible stories of chimpanzees who have thrived at the sanctuary, including a chimpanzee named Grandma who was deemed as fragile when retired to Chimp Haven in 2005, yet lived happily there for another 10 years, reaching the age of 62.” (emphases added)

We urge CH to provide the evidence, from scientific study, that supports these claims and that would benefit public understanding and consideration of the decisions.

In addition to hearing about the 62 year-old chimpanzee named Grandma, we would like to hear about a much younger chimpanzee named Magnum, who had a cardiac condition and died in his late 20s after arriving at CH. And about the 9 of 13 Bastrop animals who died within 18-months of arriving at CH. And about the two chimpanzees who drowned in their moat.

Data that could support CH’s claims include:

  1. Pre-post transport data obtained on the chimpanzees’ stress physiology and behavior.
  2. Pre-post data on the chimpanzees’ stress physiology and social behavior during introduction to the new housing, quarantine, post-quarantine housing, and social environments.
  3. Pre-post changes in the chimpanzees’ use of environmental enrichment.
  4. Pre-post changes in the chimpanzees’ voluntary compliance with husbandry training for health checks, transfer between cages/pens/enclosures, and other husbandry and care.
  5. Pre-post changes in the chimpanzees’ stress physiology and behavior when they move between the island and more typical housing conditions at Chimp Haven. [Note:  The transfer data are relevant given that, according to other sources, “Chimp Haven has 3 large, forested enclosures for the chimps to use – called ‘habitats’ – which the research centers do not have. However, there are only 3 habitats at Chimp Haven so only 3 out of 23 groups (13%) get to use them at any one time. The remainder are in enclosures similar to those at existing research facilities.”]
  6. Comparisons between relocated chimpanzees’ stress and physiology and those that are being retired in situ (i.e., where they are currently housed). 
  7. Transmission rates for HIV and hepatitis infections for healthy, previously-uninfected chimpanzees who are now being housed with infected individuals. [Note: Requesting an explanation and the rationale guiding the decision to house healthy chimpanzees with infected individuals seems justified given that the decision seems to contradict the goal of the NIH retirement program.]
  8. Comparisons between relocated chimpanzees’ wounding rates compared to those that are being retired in situ. [Note: Aggression and fighting between chimpanzees can occur during the formation of new social groups and result in wounding, therefore, the question is whether the transfer and new groups result in increased pain and wounding for chimpanzees at CH.]

If CH will not operate transparently and provide data and information to support claims about the effects of transfer on the chimpanzees’ health and well-being, we urge NIH to request that CH do so. Chimp Haven is the recipient of a $4.3M/year contract from NIH to care for the chimpanzees, and thus, would appear to be the appropriate authority to request the information. Finally, we urge journalists to ask these questions, rather than provide the “both sides opinion” approach that too frequently has dominated coverage of the topic.

Speaking of Research

2 thoughts on “Opinion or fact? Chimp Haven should provide the public with evidence and data to inform critical decisions about retired chimpanzee health and well-being

  1. I find the comments of the HSUS and Chimp Haven officials disingenuous, at best. These same individuals have for years claimed that research labs want to hold onto their chimpanzees because there is a financial incentive. Now, when Chimp Haven loses the chance to garner those same funds based on the expertise of veterinarians, they voice their outrage and make their arguments on entirely baseless claims about the quality of care and the alleged welfare benefits the chimpanzees will receive at their facility.

    There is no evidence whatsoever that the chimpanzees that have been relocated to Chimp Haven are any better off psychologically or their well-being has been improved when compared to their previous living conditions. What is even more pathetic is that NIH, the major funding resource for science in the US, has no interest in knowing if the policy decisions they have made regarding chimpanzee retirement effectively improves (or not) their well-being, which after all, is the public argument they have made for this decision. My guess is that they fear what the results of that study would produce.

    What is ironic, is that I cannot imagine a scenario within NIH in which this would be considered an acceptable practice. NIH would never allow untested or unvalidated treatments or interventions to guide their policy for any number of medical conditions in humans. Yet, they seem entirely comfortable dictating policy for chimpanzee retirement without any serious empirical consideration about how this effects the well-being very animals under their stewardship.

    Shameful and irresponsible.

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