Category Archives: Science News

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.

Speaking of Research

Research using sheep leads to a new device to record and stimulate the brain

A group of Australian and American researchers have used sheep to develop and test a new device (original paper) – the stentrode – for recording electrical signals from inside the brain. The research was published in Nature Biotechnology. This new technology removes one of the main obstacles to developing efficient brain-computer interfaces: the need for invasive surgery.

The “stentrode” is a group of small (750 µm) recording electrodes attached to an intracranial endovascular stent, which allows implantation of the electrodes inside the brain without invasive surgery. This allows high quality recording or stimulation of specific areas of the brain, without many of the risks associated with invasive brain surgery.

Image courtesy of the University of Melbourne

Image courtesy of the University of Melbourne

A stent is a tube-shaped device whose walls are made from a metallic mesh, designed to navigate inside brain’s system of blood vessels, until a desired position is reached. Once in place the mesh is expanded, securing it against the blood vessel walls. Importantly, stents are designed to be implanted by inserting them through a large blood vessel, like the jugular vein, and gradually “pushing” them into the desired position, by twisting and turning at critical juncture points where veins branch. During this implantation procedure the surgeons observe the stent’s location using a non-invasive imaging technique named cerebral angiography.

Recording the electrical activity of brain cells with high fidelity is the basis of new technologies to restore quality of life to many people with neurological diseases. For example, through brain-computer interfaces that interpret neural signals, people paralysed by damage of the spinal cord have been made able to control external devices, such as wheelchairs, robotic arms, and exoskeletons. Much of this work was initially done in monkeys– getting them to also control wheelchairs and robotic arms. Moreover, brain recording devices can be used to detect the timing and location of seizures with great precision, which helps minimise damage to healthy parts of the brain when treatment involving surgery is necessary.

One obvious problem with the current technologies is that there is a clear trade-off between the quality of recordings obtained, and degree of invasiveness. To explain this, let’s look at two extremes of techniques for recording brain activity – electroencephalogram (EEG) and microelectrode arrays.

EEG, recording from the scalp, is by far the least invasive technology: electrical activity of the brain can be recorded through a cap dotted with electrodes, and no surgery is required. However, because the signals being measured are so weak (due to the distance between brain cells and the recording electrodes), this technique can only detect the combined activity of millions of brain cells, when they work at the same moment (signals from small groups of cells tend to average out, not producing an electrical “spike” large enough to be detected far away). Thus, devices controlled by brain-computer interfaces based on EEG tend to be difficult to control, and have few “degrees of freedom” (how many different actions can be specified by the user). Moreover, it is difficult to determine exactly where the signals of interest are coming from, and electrical activity from regions well inside the brain is much harder to detect.

EGG. Image courtesy of Saint Luke’s Health System

EGG. Image courtesy of Saint Luke’s Health System

At the other end of the continuum are recordings using microelectrode arrays- small devices that are implanted directly in the brain, which contain many small metallic probes each capable of “listening” to the electrical activity of a single neurone, or a small groups of neurones. This technique, developed over many years of studies in rats, cats and monkeys, has been used recently to demonstrate the ability of a tetraplegic patient to control its own muscles again, using a brain-computer interface which included a microelectrode array to record the signals that encoded the participant’s intention to move, coupled to stimulation devices attached to different arm muscles.  Much more refined control can be achieved with this method, as one can potentially record individual signals from thousands of neurones, across many brain areas. The disadvantage, however, is clear: these devices have to be implanted directly in the brain, requiring complex neurosurgical procedures. Moreover, the insertion of the electrode arrays in the brain causes local damage, which triggers inflammatory tissue responses that, over time, can reduce the quality of recordings. Although this damage can be minimised by using larger electrodes that lie on the surface of the brain, instead of penetrating it (electrocorticography, ECoG), the need for invasive surgery remains.

Microelectrode array. CC Image by Richard A Normann. Tbe actual size of this array is 4 x 4 mm

Microelectrode array. CC Image by Richard A Normann. Tbe actual size of this array is 4 x 4 mm

As we can see, the stentrode has the potential to be the best of both worlds – offering the accuracy of microelectrode arrays and the benefits of avoiding non-invasive surgery usually associated with technologies like EEG.

Part of the problem solved by the stentrode developers was to find an adequate animal model, which would yield information valid to the situation of the human brain. Sheep were chosen due to the similar topology of the brain’s venous system, and the similar diameter of the critical blood vessels. The stentrodes were implanted inside a large vein that lines the somatosensory cortex – the part of the brain that encodes sensory information about touch, as well as muscle contraction and position of the body’s joints. Importantly, once implanted, they stayed in place without damaging the brain or blood vessels, and allowed stable neural recordings for over 6 months – while the sheep were freely moving around.

Stock image of sheep in research (in the UK) by Understanding Animal Research.

Stock image of sheep in research (in the UK) by Understanding Animal Research.

Currently envisaged applications of this new technique include “reading” signals for control of artificial limbs and seizure prediction in epilepsy. With some modifications, the same technique can be used for localised electrical stimulation of the brain, which may allow new treatments for Parkinson’s disease, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Deep Brain Stimulation, a currently used treatment to treat the tremors associated with Parkinson’s, requires invasive brain surgery to implant electrodes – this process could be made easier and safer using stentrodes. Besides being good news for people who may one day benefit from an easier way to have electrodes inserted in the brain for treatment of diseases, this story also illustrates two important points. First is the usefulness of animal models to develop treatments that directly benefit people. The sheep brain is not identical to the human brain, but can be judiciously used to model a critical feature of the latter, in a manner that is directly relevant for testing a device intended for human use. Second, that results take time to translate from basic research in animals to human use. The current generation of brain-computer interfaces would never have been developed were it not for decades of research on seemingly “basic” topics, such as how to best record different types of electrical signals from the brain, how and where the brains of various animals encode information for sensation and movement, and how blood vessels are organised and function. This is however just the beginning, and a lot more needs to be done on the way to useful and safe devices.

Marcello Rosa and Tom Holder

Original Paper: Oxley, Thomas J., 2016, Minimally invasive endovascular stent-electrode array for high-fidelity, chronic recording of cortical neural activity, Nature Biotechnology34, 320-327. Doi:10.1038/nbt.3428

What is science?

We learned today from an NIH announcement about a new plan by the federal agency to relocate and transfer all of the NIH-owned chimpanzees to the federally-funded sanctuary, Chimp Haven, by 2021 or later. The announcement was quickly the subject of announcements and proclamations of victory by PETA, HSUS, and some associated with Chimp Haven.

For others, in light of the concerns raised about the death of 9 of 13 chimpanzees transferred to Chimp Haven recently and subsequent calls for a thoughtful examination of these cases—at least a review of what might be done to minimize future risk—the announcement was troubling.

PETA on nih chimp announce 08.11.16It does appear that NIH either shared, or was at least responsive to the need to address, the concerns that were expressed about the consequences of relocation on the chimpanzees’ health and welfare. That is evidenced by the fact that NIH did undertake an analysis of mortality rates at Chimp Haven and the research centers that house NIH chimpanzees.  That is as it should be – scientists use data to inform decisions.  No problem there. NIH conducted the analysis on the basis of data requested from each of the centers. It also appears that they referenced the findings of the analysis in their decision.  So what’s the problem?

It appears that the only evidence of the mortality analysis is a non- reviewed paper that was posted just yesterday to a website (Biorxiv) by the study author, NIH’s Dr. Michael Lauer. tweet bioRxiv 08.11.16That paper may be viewed here. After even a cursory review and analysis of the Lauer paper, many questions are raised about both the methods and the conclusions drawn from the results.  Just a few of the issues or potential problems that an academic reviewer might raise are listed below. Others may read the paper and have different impressions or questions.The data includes 764 chimpanzees; 314 died during the 7 year median follow-up. The author states that: “The analyses were conducted to inform NIH’s plans to retire its surviving chimpanzees.”

To see NIH use data from an unpublished, non-peer reviewed manuscript as a basis for their decisions is incredibly disheartening. It defies the very premise and basis on which the scientific process works. Science doesn’t accept as fact those data and findings that are presented on the internet and that have not been properly vetted through the peer review process.  Image Biorxiv 08.10.16 LauerBut before turning to questions about the paper, let’s be clear on a critical point:  The questions and critiques raised here would be raised regardless of the conclusions of the paper and regardless of the direction of NIH’s decision. The questions raised here are at the heart of how science is used to inform decisions and judgments.  

In other words, what would we conclude if NIH had used a non-reviewed paper to suggest that relocation was a threat to chimpanzee well-being and that the chimpanzees should be retired in place?  The same criticism would hold.  The issue is about the conduct of science and how it should be shared and viewed in decision-making. In this case, it is particularly important because of the close relationship between the findings and decisions that have immediate and real impact. Furthermore, in a time where scientific rigor and reproducibility are the subject of a great deal of concern and discussion, it is even more troubling to see that the results of an unreviewed paper posted only yesterday in public  view are the basis for an announcement made today.

That means that there was no opportunity for a broader public consideration, for thoughtful analysis, for viewing the data, for asking questions about the approach, methods, analysis, interpretation of results, and conclusions.  Thus, we post here some initial questions and comments about the unpublished and unreviewed paper from several scientific reviewers. We hope others read the paper (here) and offer their comments, or offer additional insight into the approach, analysis, and conclusions.

To be clear, these comments are not designed to advocate for or against the transfer of chimpanzees to Chimp Haven. Nor are they designed to judge the quality of care the animals receive after arriving there. Rather, they are designed to illustrate the fact that decisions about the welfare of captive chimpanzees that are being made by NIH appear to be based on data and analyses that are arguably flawed, at least as presented in the current draft of the Lauer paper.  Dr. Lauer might have excellent responses and answers to these critiques, which may then validate the claims in the current paper.

And, that is the point: the data will then have been subjected to critical peer review, the bedrock of the scientific method. It is disappointing, and frankly, stunning, that NIH appears to have accepted these results without proper peer review. Making captive chimpanzee retirement and movement decisions based on these findings seems premature and foolish.  Sadly, that may lead to unnecessary deaths of chimpanzees. NIH is clearly committed to sending their chimpanzees to Chimp Haven; if that is the mandate, then why try to justify the decision based on methods and analyses that have not been subjected to the normal scientific peer review process?  That ultimately raises more questions than answers and stands to further confuse the public view of how science works and how claims should be evaluated.

Finally, we would also note that the data does not appear to be publicly available. In other words, while the un-reviewed article is in public view and its conclusions appear to have informed the decisions the data is not in view and cannot be evaluated or analyzed by scientists or others who are independent of the decisions and the centers involved.

Below are just a few issues, or potential problems, that any reviewer might point out.

  • The first part of the study was aimed at addressing mortality rates in chimpanzees housed at Chimp Haven compared to other facilities (Bastrop, Southwest Foundation and Alamogordo Primate facility). The author reported that age and sex had strong effect on mortality rates whereas location had only moderate effects. In point of fact, the influence of location was not a trivial effect based on the results presented in Table 2 but rather a statistically significant one.  The author seems to want to minimize the significance of the location effect because the overall p-value (p=.0173) was close to the significance level adopted in their analysis.  The effect for Chimp Haven was far below that, at p=.005. The problem, however, is that the argument for adjusting alpha as reported by the author was because they had 6 predictor variables, they therefore they increased alpha to control for possible Type I error. There are a number of issues here. First, it is not clear how the authors dummy coded the location variable. Second, even if there were 6 predictor variables, there were also more than 700 subjects in the study and thus whether the author had adequate power to guard against Type I error (and thus needed to adjust alpha below the traditional < .05) is not entirely clear without presentation of effect size or further rationale. In turn, to state that sex and age had strong effects and location had a moderate effect on mortality is simply not supported by any statistics other than the p-levels.
    Maynard at MD Anderson.

    Maynard at MD Anderson.

    The paper reports: “The strongest predictor, by far, of mortality was
    age (as calculated to be on January 1, 2005), followed by male sex and location. Older age predicted higher mortality (adjusted hazard ratio comparing animals 30 years versus 17 years 2.23, 95% CI 1.91 to 2.61); males also had higher mortality (adjusted hazard ratio 1.50, 95% CI 1.20 to 1.88). Location was only marginally associated with mortality (Wald c2=10, df=3, P=0.017). Compared to Chimp Haven, mortality was lower at APF (adjusted hazard ratio 0.65, 95% CI 0.48 to 0.88), while it was similar at Bastrop (adjusted hazard ratio 0.84, 95% CI 0.60 to 1.16) and almost identical at SNPC (adjusted hazard ratio 1.00, 95% CI 0.71 to 1.39).”

  • The second part of the paper was designed to examine the influence of relocation/transfer on mortality rates in the different chimpanzee populations. This aspect of the study is likely in response to recent reports of higher-than-normal rates of mortality in chimpanzees transferred to Chimp Haven but sadly neither the design nor data analysis allow for any meaningful conclusions to be drawn.  Specifically, there is no control or comparison group. According to the author, at Chimp Haven (CH), chimpanzees die as they get older and this isn’t due to factors such as when they arrived at Chimp Haven, the season of year, etc….but these analyses are irrelevant. What one would want to know is what the mortality rate is for chimpanzees that get transferred to CH compared to either: 1) chimpanzees that stay at their original facility and don’t transfer; or 2) mortality in chimpanzees that transfer INTO CH from a lab compared to mortality rates of chimpanzees that are transferred FROM CH to another facility or 3) mortality rates of chimpanzees that have been transferred INTO another sanctuary (e.g., Save the Chimps).  The second situation does not occur; however, the 3rd situation could be analyzed. Furthermore, there is a 4) mortality rates of chimpanzees that transferred FROM other facilities and INTO Bastrop.  None of these comparisons were made in the paper though they are necessary to make inferences about the effect of transfers on the quality of care and mortality. Thus, this entire part of the paper addressing the effects of transfer on mortality is fundamentally flawed. Of course, it is also recognized that in addition to the analyses, appropriate balancing of covariates that relate to the mortality for each of these four comparisons may be difficult, post hoc; however, the alternatives and limitations should be a feature of a carefully considered conclusion and discussion.
  • For the Chimp Haven sample, why were non NIH-owned chimpanzees excluded from the mortality analyses? Chimp Haven has taken chimpanzees from other facilities such as Ohio State, Yerkes and New Iberia. If the question is not about mortality rates at a given facility, but rather the effect of transferring individuals from established housing conditions, why exclude any individuals? Further, were the non NIH-owned chimpanzees included in the sample size census within Chimp Haven? In other words, in Table 1, it indicates that the Chimp Haven had 273 chimpanzees. Is that all the chimpanzees at CH, or only those that are NIH-owned? A reviewer might guess is that these numbers are based on the entire sample of chimpanzees at Chimp Haven but it is far less clear on the mortality numbers (107). Moreover, peer review would surely point out that the methods are not sufficient for reproducibility.
  • In Table 2, the most relevant comparison (at least in relation to the current issue, the transfer of NIH chimpanzees to CH) is starkly missing. Specifically, for location, Chimp Haven needs to be the reference group, so that comparisons of transfer from all other sites can be made. This is particularly strange as the text lists Chimp Haven as the reference group and interprets the data in this regard. If the point of this analysis is to inform the decision to transfer the animals to CH, vs retire-in-place, then the comparisons should be made with CH as the reference group so that we can see how it truly stacks up against leaving the animals where they are.

 

 

 

 

Heat or light? An Analysis of Chimp Haven’s Message

Earlier this week the president of Chimp Haven, Cathy Willis Spraetz, issued a rebuttal to “a number of articles and blog posts focusing on the retirement of federally-owned chimpanzees to Chimp Haven.” She identifies the goal of the open message as a response to address the “concerns and resistance from some in the laboratory community,” whom she described as increasingly direct and vocal.

Spraetz is correct that there are increasingly direct and vocal questions about the retirement of federally-owned chimpanzees. But rather than focusing on the serious and challenging questions that have been raised, or on the repeated calls for the communities involved to have a more thoughtful, fact-informed consideration of the topic, she instead frames the issue as a polarized situation in which the “laboratory community” is unjustifiably criticizing Chimp Haven. To do so, she provided a series of misinterpretations and inaccuracies of the articles and blog posts. We respond to some of those below, but also encourage people to read her letter in its entirety and to read recent posts and articles in order to evaluate the claims Spraetz makes. More importantly, we continue to urge people to step back from polarization and instead identify what information is needed and what considerations and actions should be taken in order to make the best decisions that balance the chimpanzees’ health and wellbeing.

The first issue the letter poses is that the Chimp Haven CEO, Spraetz, failed to include links to the original articles she aims to rebuke. That is problematic because the omission of the original sources prevents readers from reading what she interprets as “accusations” (Spraetz’s term) and forming their own opinions. Whether accidental or deliberate, such omission is irresponsible and should be corrected in the posting on the Chimp Haven site.

The omissions, in addition to the framing and language in the letter, do nothing to further thoughtful dialogue on the topic at hand – the welfare of retired research chimpanzees. What it does is distract from serious consideration with a fueling of the “Us vs. Them” rhetoric. In this case, the “Them” is the “laboratory community,” one that Spraetz seems to cast as unconcerned about chimpanzees’ health and welfare. Unfortunately many may buy into this message. Why? Because rather than taking a thoughtful look at the animals’ care, conditions, and actual outcomes, it is easier to simply argue that “labs” are bad and “sanctuaries” are good.

I encourage interested readers to take the time to thoroughly read the Spraetz piece and the sources that inspired her message. Here, I address Spraetz’s message piece by piece (as I did on Twitter) and clarify the ways in which it distorts quotes and makes inferences that simply are not true. By reading the original sources that Spraetz described, it is clear that blaming Chimp Haven – or the excellent behavioral and care staff – for the deaths of the chimpanzees that were relocated there several months ago is not the focus. Rather, the focus in on better understanding and consideration of what happened to recently relocated animals – a consideration that should inform future decisions.

CH message image 2

In fact, Dr. Buckmaster did not write that the chimps “’suffered and died’ because of their transfer to Chimp Haven.” This claim distorts the “suffered and died” quote by taking it out of context. Rather, Buckmaster wrote:

“In a blog posted in 2013, the CEO of the Humane Society of the United States congratulated his followers for their hard work, reinforcing their effort by stating that criteria put forth by a NIH working group made it clear that “not one laboratory could be considered ethologically appropriate” for chimpanzees. This is not true. 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.” (emphasis added; Lab Animal, Vol. 45, No. 7, p. 271).

Buckmaster made an argument for retirement-in-place; she did not claim that Chimp Haven was responsible for the chimps’ deaths.

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There are several inaccuracies here. The first inaccurate statement, “invasive research with this species,” implies that until NIH’s November 2015 decision to “retire all federally owned chimpanzees,” all research was invasive in nature. In fact, since 2012, the facility from which these particular chimps retired conducted no biomedical research but only conducted observational studies.

Ironically, recently Chimp Haven proudly announced that it has entered into a partnership with Lincoln Park Zoo that will enable similar observational research, and that may also include biomedical research.

Another inaccuracy is the accusation, “…we cannot allow this community to disparage the quality of care we provide…or to question our organization’s dedication to our mission…”

This is followed shortly by the statement that Buckmaster “is able to so clearly judge the quality of Chimp Haven.” In reading and re-reading the articles that Spraetz refers to, one sees that there is not a single instance of any article or post author questioning the quality of care at Chimp Haven or Chimp Haven’s dedication. The sole instance is a commenter on the blog. In fact, the word “quality” does not appear once in Buckmaster’s article, and appears only once in Speaking of Research’s article on the partnership in the concluding sentence:

“Conducting research is compatible with both high quality care and with truly valuing what the animal contributes to new knowledge that benefits individuals, the species, and the future.”

Likewise, the word “dedication” does not appear either in Buckmaster’s article or in Speaking of Research’s article on the partnership.

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First, Buckmaster does not quote Dr. Abee at all in her article. Rather, Abee was quoted in this article from December 2015 in which, again, the focus is on making the argument for retirement-in-place. Further, Spraetz’s quote of Abee is taken out of context. Abee’s entire quote reads:

“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.”

So Abee made a point not to criticize Chimp Haven and to make it abundantly clear that he had issue with the transfer itself.

Second, underscoring the statement, “the labs themselves made such decisions when they selected which chimpanzees to send” suggests that if the labs had “chosen” these particular chimps to leave at a later time, their outcomes may have differed. In fact, most of the chimps that died were very old. Research shows that involuntary relocation in old age is stressful (and a new paper shows that relocation of lab chimps to a sanctuary resulted in chronic stress and behavioral changes). Thus, it is possible that it would not have mattered when these chimps moved; their fates may have been the same. But that is unknown right now and is a question that can only be answered by examining what happened to the animals that have transferred, including those 9 of 13 who died. It is exactly this kind of review—based in facts, actual records, and expertise—that is called for in order to inform future decisions. An unwillingness to do so – and to share these with the public and others who have interest – undermines confidence that everything that can be done is being done to protect the animals.

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The statement, “The anonymous blog author questioned the partnership…” is another misrepresentation. Any reader can see that Speaking of Research actually clearly explained why such research would be warranted. In fact, Spraetz’s explanation for the research sounds a lot like Speaking of Research’s:

“It may seem odd that a sanctuary—a place whose justification and primary goal is to provide chimpanzees with care—has a need to evaluate the effect of visitors on the animals’ welfare. However, although the sanctuary is not open to all members of the public on a daily basis, it does appear to have extensive public visitation and education programs that presumably results in a need to evaluate the effect of visitors on the animals.”

Moreover, the blog author goes on to state, “the sanctuary offers a resource that zoos cannot for studies that are adequately powered to test scientific hypotheses.”

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This statement as a whole is not supported by any of the articles to which Spraetz refers. No author has made a accusations toward Chimp Haven’s care, and certainly no attacks on it have been made in these articles. The conversations have been focused on the issue of transferring the chimps versus allowing them to retire-in-place, on the bigger questions about what defines sanctuary and research,  and what is needed for a serious, thoughtful, and balanced consideration to inform decisions going forward.

Spraetz’s comment is precisely the kind of statement that leads to inflammatory reactions and further divides the people who have the same goal: the optimal conditions and highest quality of life for the chimpanzees.

Spraetz did have it right in one part of her message: the relationship between the lab and sanctuary communities has dissolved. But for her to distort the conversation by making claims that the laboratory community disparages the quality of care at Chimp Haven and attacks Chimp Haven’s operations in a public message is irresponsible. It actually exemplifies her quote from earlier in the message: “It’s an unfortunate characterization of our organization, which is based less on facts and more on rhetoric and mischaracterizations.”

CH message image 9By not providing the original references, which clearly show that the laboratory community is focused on the issue of transferring the animals, not the quality of care at Chimp Haven, Spraetz permits most readers to take her statements at face value. This then leads to unproductive and at times hostile dialogue in forums like Facebook, which do nothing to promote chimpanzee welfare.

Furthermore, for Chimp Haven to do nothing to counter the hostile and false statements made by its supporters – and for Chimp Haven to even go so far as to “Like” comments on Facebook that falsely describe laboratory researchers as “torturing animals” and calls them “A-holes” – seems completely incompatible with the goal of public education. It is this behavior that raises additional questions. That includes questioning why, given their public education goals, Chimp Haven does not take the responsibility to provide accurate counter to wrong statements and accurate information to support education and dialogue.

CH response tweet imageAmanda M. Dettmer

Zoo-Sanctuary Partnership: Lincoln Park Zoo and Federally-funded Retired Chimpanzee Sanctuary Announce New Research Program

An article titled “Chimpanzee sanctuaries open door to more research: Collaboration aims to beef up science at retirement centers” in Science last Thursday (David Grimm, 7/28/16) was a surprising turn for some attending to the ongoing events and debates about chimpanzees in the US. The article highlights an announcement by Chimp Haven (CH). CH is a sanctuary federally funded to provide care for federally-owned chimpanzees retired from research. The announcement revealed a new program to fund research with the sanctuary chimpanzees. [We wrote earlier about the concerns raised by deaths of chimpanzees at the sanctuary (“Do Politics Trump Chimpanzee Well-Being? Questions Raised About Deaths of US Research Chimpanzees at Federally-funded Sanctuary”).]

The new research program, part of a partnership with one of Chicago’s zoos, received a $350,000 grant from a private organization, the Arcus Foundation.

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Photo credit: Kathy West

The partnership was engineered 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 well as the Chair of the chimpanzee Species Survival Plan, a group whose primary role is population management, coordinating breeding plans and movement of chimpanzees between the 34 member zoos in the US.

As we’ve noted previously, Ross was also a member of the NIH Working Group on the Use of Chimpanzees in NIH-Supported Research that NIH charged in 2012 “to provide advice on implementing recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in its 2011 report, Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research:  Assessing the Necessity.” The conclusions of the working group were associated with phasing out 22 of 30 NIH-funded research projects and with decisions to move chimpanzees to the federal sanctuary. As reported in 2013 by Science: “The working group concluded in January 2013 that many of NIH’s 30 projects involving chimpanzee research or support should end. …NIH officials said that 310 research chimpanzees will move to the national sanctuary at Chimp Haven, in Keithville, Louisiana, or other sanctuaries over the next few years. … NIH is also working with Congress to lift a $30 million cap imposed in 2000 in spending on the national sanctuary that the agency will reach in the next few months” (Kaiser, 6/26/13).

According to the Chimp Haven site:  “After service on the board from 2009-2012, he [Ross] was re-elected in 2013 and in 2014, stepping into the role of board chair.” The NIH Working Group (WG) was assembled and charged in February 2012  and gave its final report nearly a year later, in January 2013. The membership roster lists Ross’ affiliation as Lincoln Park Zoo.

The new funding of the zoo-sanctuary partnership that was recently announced appears to be aimed at an expansion of behavioral and observational research at Chimp Haven. The future plans appear to go beyond ongoing studies of aspects of animal husbandry and care however, as is indicated in comments by Ross and by the director of the sanctuary, Cathy Spraetz.

“Ross would like to eventually move on to more substantive studies of behavior and cognition at the sanctuary. That could include giving the animals touchscreens and puzzles to play with. Spraetz is open to such experiments, as long as they don’t interfere with the animals’ normal lives.”

“Some biomedical studies may even be possible. Chimp Haven’s president, Cathy Spraetz, says the sanctuary would consider sharing blood and other tissues collected during routine procedures with outside scientists. It has also agreed to donate the brains of deceased animals.”

What is particularly surprising about the article and accompanying comments are those concerning the sanctuary’s desire to recruit scientists (and their research funding) in order to expand the sanctuary’s research capacity.

“And if Chimp Haven truly wants to beef up its research program, it will need to find more money. The National Institutes of Health owns most of the chimpanzees here and pays for their care, but it doesn’t fund research on them. So the collaboration will have to expand its reliance on donors and private foundations. [Steve] Ross also hopes that scientists who have lost their lab chimps will come to sanctuaries to continue their work—and bring their own money.

It appears that Ross’ hope refers to those NIH-funded researchers who lost their funding for peer-reviewed scientific studies as a result of the series of decisions made on the basis of recommendations from a group of which Ross was part, the NIH Working Group on the Use of Chimpanzees in NIH-Supported Research.

It is also true that the decisions and events over the past five years have resulted in movement of chimpanzees from dedicated research facilities to various sanctuaries and at least one zoo (for review see Bennett & Panicker, 2016). In turn, the recommendations, decisions, and events—including movement of animals to Chimp Haven—have created researchers “who have lost their lab chimps.” Perhaps it is these scientists that others hope to entice to either zoos or sanctuaries in order to pursue studies of chimpanzees.

What is not clear is how Chimp Haven will create an equivalent setting that permits these scientists to conduct research that merits support.

LPZ announcment website LPS CH partnership

LPZ announcement. http://www.lpzoo.org/

What kind of research will Chimp Haven perform?

The current research discussed in Thursday’s Science article about the new sanctuary-zoo partnership addresses not only questions relevant to animal care in a sanctuary setting, but also leverages the larger Chimp Haven population to answer questions relevant to animal care in zoo settings. For example, a current postdoctoral research fellow supported by the LPZ partnership is examining the effect of human visitors viewing the chimpanzees during the opportunities Chimp Haven offers for the public to visit and watch the animals.

It may seem odd that a sanctuary—a place whose justification and primary goal is to provide chimpanzees with care—has a need to evaluate the effect of visitors on the animals’ welfare. However, although the sanctuary is not open to all members of the public on a daily basis, it does appear to have extensive public visitation and education programs that presumably results in a need to evaluate the effect of visitors on the animals. For example, among the public events are:  monthly “Discovery Days”, K-12 student visits, Scout programs, and a summer camp for children. Not surprisingly, given that the facility is required to raise 25% of the funds needed to care for the chimpanzees (federal funds cover only 75% of care costs for retired NIH chimpanzees) there are also donor events. For instance, Chimp Haven’s website advertises:

“After Chimpanzee Discovery Days as well as during some school breaks, pre-registered and pre-paid visitors are invited to Chimp Chat & Chew, a program that enables guests to get a more intimate look at the chimpanzees and personal access to Chimp Haven staff. Guests receive a behind-the-scenes tour, an informative presentation by one of our professional staff, a catered lunch, and an up-close-and-personal look at our residents.”

It is also clear that Chimp Haven provides animal resources and research opportunities that benefit zoo researchers and zoos. Primary among them, the number of chimpanzees at the sanctuary (204) far exceeds any single zoo population. By contrast, Lincoln Park Zoo, located in in urban Chicago, houses 11 chimpanzees (Project ChimpCare, 2016).

lpz snapshotThus, the sanctuary offers a resource that zoos cannot for studies that are adequately powered to test scientific hypotheses. Furthermore, while researchers in zoo settings must contend with operating conditions that surround the zoo’s need to attract visitors, as well as the visitors themselves, researchers in a sanctuary appear to have relative freedom from many constraints. In addition, given that NIH and federal sources provide millions of dollars in funding to support the animals’ care, the cost to do research could be much lower than in other settings that require fees and per day costs in order to conduct any type of research with the animals. Finally, it is unclear what the review process is for research at the sanctuary and how it compares to the review process for research proposals to NIH, with each receiving multiple levels of expert scientific peer review in a highly competitive process.

where us chimpanzees live 07.13.16

Illustrated distribution of chimpanzees in the US. Sanctuaries and research facilities have breeding bans. Thus, when coupled with the age of the current chimpanzee population, the overwhelming majority of chimpanzees in sanctuaries and retired from research will be gone within a couple of decades. Those animals held and bred by zoos would then comprise the great majority of captive US chimpanzees.

Should sanctuaries also be research centers?

It is no surprise that many within the scientific community agree with those who believe that research with chimpanzees should continue. Scientists, along with others, have written about the ongoing need and value of continuing research with chimpanzees (Bennett, Beran, Brosnan, Hopkins, Menzel, & Washburn, 2015; Bennett, 2015; Bennett & Panicker, 2016; Latzman & Hopkins, 2016). As with all research, scientific objectives should be balanced with consideration of animal health and well-being. This consideration is not unique to research with chimpanzees. It is foundational to the US system of ethical review and conduct of nonhuman animal research and occurs at many levels, including the scientific review of proposals for research, Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) review and monitoring of research, and external oversight by federal agencies.

Whether chimpanzee research is justified and valuable is one question. It is, however, a different question than whether research should be conducted with chimpanzees retired by NIH from research and transferred to a sanctuary designated with the sole purpose of providing the animals with lifetime care. Retiring the animals to sanctuaries, or moving them to zoos, is the same path taken by other countries that ended biomedical research with apes. Moving the animals to sanctuaries is often viewed as an action needed to address a significant part of public moral responsibility to captive apes. Thus, for some, sanctuaries are defined as places in which the animals’ lives are managed with as minimal intrusion by humans as is possible without compromising the animals’ care.

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Photo credit: Kathy West

Furthermore, for some, the very meaning of sanctuary is assumed to preclude the use of the animals as instruments to obtain goals—including their use in research, but also in ways that appear to be exploitative of the animals in the interest of fund-raising, or to serve human needs for entertainment or education. It may have been with this in mind that Molly Polidoroff, Executive Director of Save the Chimps, the largest chimpanzee sanctuary in the US and one entirely reliant on private donations, expressed reservations about performing research with animals living in the sanctuary.

As quoted in the Science article about Chimp Haven’s new partnership with Lincoln Park Zoo, Save the Chimp’s Polidoroff said:  “We don’t test hypotheses with our chimps.”

Whether other sanctuaries will follow the lead of the Chimp Haven and Lincoln Park Zoo remains to be seen. Of course whether Chimp Haven is truly open and welcoming to the range of research that is allowable in the federal sanctuary system also remains to be seen.

Speaking of Research

Update: h/t to a reader who shared this upcoming conference presentation at the joint meeting of the American Society of Primatologists and International Society of Primatologists, hosted at Lincoln Park Zoo. The abstract provides further detail about the sanctuary’s research program and rationale.

https://www.asp.org/IPS/meetings/abstractDisplay.cfm?abstractID=7181&confEventID=7611&day=105&parenteventid=7575

THE FUTURE OF COLLABORATIVE STUDIES AT CHIMP HAVEN, INC.

C. Willis Spraetz1,2, K. Taylor1,2 and A. Fultz1,2
113600 Chimpanzee Place, Keithville, LA 71047, USA, 2Chimp Haven, Inc.
     The retirement of all federally owned chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) from biomedical research and their recent reclassification from threatened to endangered status have led to concerns about the future of behavioral research on the species. Chimp Haven, which serves as the National Chimpanzee Sanctuary, provides options for researchers hoping to continue non-invasive behavioral research. Chimp Haven is the only sanctuary bound by the Standards of Care for Chimpanzees which are federal law. These laws cover the types of studies that may be conducted at the sanctuary and designate the members of our Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. Since 2005, 20 protocols have passed through the committee, with an 80 percent approval rate. We currently have 4 active and 2 proposed protocols, and 8 biomaterials distribution agreements. With recent decisions ensuring the retirement of additional chimpanzees, sanctuaries may provide an optimal place for behavioral research with the potential for large sample sizes, a variety of enclosures, and on-site support. A future goal for the sanctuary community is to become self-sustaining. In order to do this, sanctuaries must explore different options including fees for researchers and visiting scientists who hope to continue to study the chimpanzees. This type of collaboration will become more important in the future to ensure that we learn all we can about the animals in our care.

Do Politics Trump Chimpanzee Well-being? Questions Raised About Deaths of US Research Chimpanzees at Federally-Funded Sanctuary

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.

Photo credit: Kathy West

Photo credit: Kathy West

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.”

maynard

Photo credit: Kathy West

labanjulyBuckmaster’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).

Bastrop chimps tool useResearch 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.

where us chimpanzees live 07.13.16

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.

CC-BY-NC-SAThus 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.

http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-16-392In 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).

CC-BY-NC-SAFrom 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.

Zika research in nonhuman primates critical as fears among pregnant women, families grow

Jordana Lenon, B.S., B.A., is the outreach specialist for the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center and the Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine Center, both at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In this guest post Jordana talks about WNPRC research on Zika virus.

Wisconsin National Primate Research Center scientist David O’Connor is emphasizing using “as few animals as possible” to answer research questions that desperately need answers as the world watches Zika virus cause birth defects and raise fears among pregnant women and their families across the warmer Americas. These answers, O’Connor expects, will move him and his collaborators at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Duke University, in Brazil and beyond forward as they learn more each day how Zika virus may be operating inside of infected pregnant women and their newborns, and could cause potential lifelong impairments we don’t even know about yet.

Researchers at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center perform a fetal ultrasound on a pregnant rhesus macaque, in their quest to learn more about the link between the Zika virus and birth defects. (Images by Justin Bomberg, UW-Madison Communications)

Thanks to research using rhesus macaques, whose immune, reproductive and neurological systems are very similar to ours, the answers are starting to come in. Furthermore, O’Connor and his Zika Experimental Science Team, or “ZEST are sharing their raw research data through an online portal with the public – including of course and very importantly other Zika researchers. Their goal is to share data openly, to eliminate as many impediments as possible to spurring collaborative work around the globe to solve the Zika crisis.

David O'Connor, professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is pictured on April 19, 2016. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

David O’Connor, professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is pictured on April 19, 2016. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

Just how severe a problem are we looking at? O’Connor gave some perspective during a public lecture on the UW-Madison campus this week. While HIV – another pandemic virus he has studied exhaustively over the past 20 years – costs society about $400,000 per patient over their life spans, Zika virus impairments in newborns could cost between $1-10 million per patient (using US dollar estimates) over their life spans. Recent studies in macaques found that the Zika virus persisted for up to 70 days in the blood of pregnant female monkeys – much longer than the 10 days it remained in either males or non-pregnant females – this increases the chance of severe birth defects being found in babies.

There are already more than 300 pregnant women in the US with laboratory evidence of Zika. This number is growing daily. Infections in the US are largely being attributed to pregnant women picking up the virus while traveling outside the country: Zika is hitting hard right now in Puerto Rico, infecting nearly 50 pregnant women per day, as Aedes aegypti mosquitos, which can transmit viruses such as dengue and Zika, spread and move northward this summer from South to Central America, to the Caribbean and into the United States. Because Zika is also sexually transmitted, its borders of infection are not limited to places where the mosquitos live and bite.

Mother and infant rhesus monkeysThere is hope, however. A new experimental vaccine has shown to protect mice with just a single dose. Scientists from Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, the Beth Israel Deconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School found two different vaccines effectively protected 100% of mice from the virus. This compares to a control group which were unprotected and all caught Zika after being exposed to the virus.

Jordana Lenon

See the team’s latest research updates on the ZEST web portal site.

View the Wednesday Night at the Lab lecture on Zika virus that Dr. O’Connor gave July 6 on the UW-Madison campus, including his responses to several questions about the virus, immunity, pregnancy, and vaccine development.