Tag Archives: animal research

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To see NIH use data from an unpublished, non-peer reviewed manuscript as a basis for their decisions is incredibly disheartening.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.





Why we haven’t cured the common cold – a response to PETA’s science advisor, Dr. Julia Baines

For a previous post that also debunks comments made by PETA, read our article, “Biology, History and Maths: A lesson in debunking PETA’s nonsense”.

The United Kingdom recently released their annual statistics of scientific procedures on living animals and, as expected, interested parties weighed in and provided their views and interpretations of these numbers (e.g., here, here and here). While it is acknowledged that providing a context for these numbers is key, it is often quite difficult to do so without sufficient passage of time. Indeed, the timeframe required for the translation of research from bench to bedside takes years, if not decades. Moreover, as science is self-generating and self-correcting, there is no explicit requirement that an applied benefit results from all scientific research, including research performed on animals.

With this in mind, which facts can we infer from these annual statistics? We can, for example, quantify the number of animals used by species (mice, rats, primates, etc.), by establishment (e.g., government, university), and by study type (e.g., basic research, breeding, applied research) to name a few. We can also do a retrospective account of the amount of pain experienced (severity) by animals used in experimental procedures. What we should not do based on these statistics, is make false claims about the procedures involved in animal research and what animal research should have achieved. In what can only be viewed as an attempt to evoke the maximum emotional response, Dr. Julia Baines, a science advisor for PETA, was quoted as saying:

“Given that the latest Home Office statistics reveal that a staggering 4.14 million scientific procedures were carried out on animals in British laboratories in 2015, we should have a cure for everything, including the common cold, by now if this was a useful method of gaining scientific information.” [Our emphasis]

As Dr. Baines correctly points out, 4.14 million scientific procedures were carried out in British laboratories. And, it is true that 4.14 million is a large number of procedures. What Dr. Baines fails to do is to provide a fact-based context for those numbers, as for example was done here and here. Such a context would reflect, for example, that the number of animals used between 2013 and 2015 increased by only 0.5%. Next, Dr. Baines goes on to imply a causal relationship between animal use and a cure for all diseases, including the common cold. While this statement is at best an example of illogical abstraction and at worst logically flawed thinking below what one would expect from a “science advisor”, I found it useful to reflect on the question, “Why don’t we have a cure for the common cold?”

The first thing worth pointing out is that the common cold is not a single virus strain. Rhinoviruses are the most common form of the cold virus but even then there are over a hundred known types of rhinoviruses.

Furthermore, curing the common cold would mean eradicating a long list of viruses which cause similar symptoms, such as adenoviruses and coronaviruses. To further complicate matters, in a given geographical area, only 20 to 30 different types of the “cold virus” circulate each season, only 10% of those will show up next year for that season, and due to viral mutation, new strains will emerge across time.  Thus, we immediately see that for something seemingly as “simple” as the common cold, producing a “cure” is exceedingly difficult.

Rhinovirus caption: Surface of the human rhinovirus 16, one of the viruses which cause the common cold. Source:Wikipedia Commons

Rhinovirus caption: Surface of the human rhinovirus 16, one of the viruses which cause the common cold. Source:Wikipedia Commons

Moreover, the statement by Julia that we should have a “cure for everything” is something that cutting edge science is working on. The basic premise is that because there are many viruses and many diseases caused by viruses, as well as many viral mutations, it may be virtually impossible to eradicate all viruses by utilizing single vaccinations. For example, Todd Rider is working on a broad spectrum antiviral approach, dubbed DRACO, which causes infected cells to die while leaving uninfected cells intact.

DRACOs have worked against H1N1 influenza in cells and mice. NIAID/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) Source: Secondary citation from here: http://www.techinsider.io/todd-rider-draco-crowdfunding-broad-spectrum-antiviral-2015-12

DRACOs have worked against H1N1 influenza in cells and mice. NIAID/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Source: Secondary citation from here: http://www.techinsider.io/todd-rider-draco-crowdfunding-broad-spectrum-antiviral-2015-12

Consistent with the 3Rs, this method was first developed in vitro, and given that the method showed evidence of proof of principle, in vivo trials were begun, recognizing that currently, alternative methods such as in vitro studies complement rather than replace animal research.

Todd is not the only scientist working on this problem. Brian Lichty is adopting a somewhat different approach, looking at the mechanism via which immune cells detect viruses in the body and how they trigger an immune response. Both approaches recognize the complexity of curing viral diseases, both at the level of the host and the agent, and the valuable role which animal research plays in the development of cures.

What emerges from a review of scientific history and method is this: be patient.

Dr. Baines is not alone in wishing that cures and medical progress were faster and error-free – many of us have this wish. Unfortunately, that isn’t the way science or reality works. With the help of animal research, we have great potential for curing many diseases, including diseases which affect non-human animals. It just may take some time. More importantly, I encourage all readers of information on the internet to carefully scrutinize what is presented, including this post. We are often faced with common-sense notions in our everyday life, and we often do not question such information, particularly if it is something that is consistent with what we believe to be true. We saw this behaviour most recently with the release of the animal use statistics in the UK for 2015, with facts being flagrantly misrepresented and, frighteningly, widely publicized.

Jeremy D. Bailoo

The opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect the interests of the University of Bern or the Division of Animal Welfare at the University of Bern.

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.


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.


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.



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.

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

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


Lab Animal article about relocated chimpanzees

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

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

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

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


Photo credit: Kathy West

Perspectives from experts across the communities that care for chimpanzees

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

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

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

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

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

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

Points of apparent consensus:

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

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

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

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

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

Chimpanzees using tools at NCCC

Chimpanzees using tools at NCCC

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

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

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

Dr. Magden, NCCC veterinarian:

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

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

Chimp Haven photo from NAPSA

Unresolved points:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chimpanzees at NCCC. Photo credit: Kathy West.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chimpanzees in research, zoo, and sanctuary facilities

Chimpanzees in research, zoo, and sanctuary facilities

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

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

What can we conclude?

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

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

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

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

Summary:  Open questions for further consideration

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

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

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

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

Speaking of Research


More at:

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

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

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

Animal Experiments in the UK: Statistics show 4,142,631 procedures in 2015

The UK Home Office has published the 2015 annual statistics showing the number of animal procedures carried out in Great Britain under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, 1986; this covers all vertebrate species (and Cephalopods). In 2015 there were 4.14 million procedures carried out, up 7.1% from 2014 (3.87 million). However, the Home Office have warned that comparisons with 2014 are likely to be problematic as issues with a new counting procedure (introduced in 2014) are only now being ironed out.

[T]hroughout this release, 2015 data are compared with 2013 data, as neither year of data are subject to the same data quality issues as the 2014 data. However, comparisons between 2015 and 2013 should still be exercised with a degree of caution due to the methodological change in 2014.

When compared to 2013, the number of animal procedures rose 0.5% from 4.12 million procedures.

While we often describe these statistics as being for the UK, they do not include Northern Ireland (who carried out 19,857 procedures in 2014), and so are technically the figures for Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales).

Procedures on animals in Great Britain for research in 2015. Click to Enlarge

Procedures on animals in Great Britain for research in 2015. Click to Enlarge

Overall, 96.8% of animals used in scientific studies were mice, rats, fish or birds. Dogs and primates (which are offered special protections under UK law) together accounted for less than 0.2% of the total (similar to in previous years), this becomes 2.01% if cats are included. The statistics also reveal that half of all experiments were the breeding of GM animals which were not used in further experiments – this is almost identical to 2014. Overall, over 67% (two thirds) of all experiments involved genetically modified animals.

Different colours represent changes to the counting method in 1987 and 2014.

Trend over time in animal experiments in the UK. Click to Enlarge.

Using the trend graph we can see how 2014 data appears to be a blip (as confirmed by the Home Office), with animal experiments remaining relatively constant around 4.1 million. While this is higher than in the 1990s, it remains much lower than the 5.5+ million animals used in the mid 1960s.

Procedures on non-human primates rose slightly from 3,246 procedures in 2014, to 3,612 in 2015. The number of procedures on cats fell by 1 to 209 procedures and on dogs rose to 4,643 (but down slightly from the more accurate 2013 figures).

Animal pexperiments in research and testing in Great Britain 2015 by species

A ban on cosmetic testing on animals (1998) and of using great apes (gorillas, orang-utans and chimpanzees) in research (1986) meant both had zero procedures in 2015. It should be noted that some research may continue on great apes in zoos, however such research can be observation-based only as “procedures” on great apes are illegal under ASPA.

For the second time the UK statistics include retrospective reporting of suffering. Rather than just submitting licence proposals to the Home Office that include estimated levels of suffering, the researchers now have to report on what was actually seen (using a variety of measures). Unfortunately the statistics put these in two separate tables (Table 3 and 8). So we have combined them to get severity for all procedures in 2015. We can see most experiments are sub threshold (34%; less than the introduction of a hypodermic needle) or mild (45%), with remainder as moderate (14%), severe (4.5%) or non-recovery (3%; the animal never awakes from anaesthesia). Overall the proportion of moderate and severe fell from 19.2% in 2014 to 18.2 in 2015.

Severity of animal research in the UK in 2015

Severity of animal research in the UK in 2015

Other things to note in the UK statistics:

  • 49.8% of procedures were for the creation and breeding of genetically altered animals (not used in other experiments), 26.6% were for basic research, 13.4% was for regulatory purposes and 9.7% was translational/applied research [Table 1]
  • Over the experimental procedures, two-thirds of the “severe” procedures were regulatory procedures on mice. This is often because death is an endpoint in such procedures [Table 3.1]
  • Over 97% of the animals were born in the UK [Table 2.1]
  • 47.7% of procedures were conducted in universities and medical schools, 25.1% were in commercial organisations (e.g. pharmaceuticals), 12.4% were done at non-profit making organisations (e.g. medical research charities), and 11.8% were done at other public bodies. [Table 11]

Speaking of Research congratulate the UK government on continuing to produce the most comprehensive statistics on animal experiments worldwide. It is also important to note that these statistics are released as a press conference each year where representatives from the scientific community speak about the importance of animals in research.

Speaking of Research

Find more on the stats here: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/537708/scientific-procedures-living-animals-2015.pdf

Read last year’s release here: https://speakingofresearch.com/2015/10/22/animal-experiments-in-the-uk-government-releases-2014-statistics/

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.”


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.