Tag Archives: NIH

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).


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.


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.


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.


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

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.

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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

Sanctuary, Zoo, Lab: Name Games or Core Differences?

The announcement of a research partnership between Lincoln Park Zoo (Chicago) and Chimp Haven (a federally funded sanctuary for NIH retired chimpanzees) has led to increased dialogue, particularly in regards to what this means for the chimpanzees’ well-being and importantly, the kinds of activities that a sanctuary is allowed to engage with the animals under their care. We previously covered some of this issue, with concerns raised about the the deaths of 9 chimpanzees recently transferred to the Chimp Haven sanctuary (see here and here). In light of continued planning for relocating chimpanzees, the central focus has been on the question of whether the deaths have resulted in serious consideration and thoughtful review to identify any changes that could reduce future risks and best protect other animals’ health and wellbeing.Maynard

The recent announcement of a zoo-sanctuary “research partnership” has again prompted the question of the impact on the relocated chimpanzees’ well-being. Moreover, subsequent discussion has also illustrated a number of areas where facts and solid public information about the transparency and oversight of such research may be critically lacking. The discussion also highlights issues at the core of ethical consideration of chimpanzees. They are issues that not only play a role in decisions about where the chimpanzees should live, and in what activities they should take part; more fundamentally, they are issues that define what is meant by sanctuary and what is meant by research. That definition is central to informed and productive dialogue.

@2016 AJ Bennett comparison table research zoo sanctuary Table 1In many cases it appears that there are widely divergent views of what defines a sanctuary and what is meant by research. This is why, in part, the recent announcement of the Chimp Haven-Lincoln Park Zoo partnership was surprising to many. Particularly surprising was a statement by the sanctuary’s Chair of the Board of Directors that indicated the facility hopes to recruit scientists to bring research funds to the sanctuary in order to continue their research that has been truncated by federal decisions to retire research chimpanzees.Science - David Grimm 7.28.16

In various promotional materials about the new partnership between the zoo and the sanctuary the emphasis was on how the program might benefit understanding of chimpanzees and assist with animal care and conservation goals. At the same time it rapidly became evident that enthusiasm from the zoo and its chimpanzee program director, Dr. Stephen Ross, partially reflects benefits gained from access and use of the large sanctuary chimpanzee population, including research opportunities unavailable in the zoo. Others also appeared to see this use of the sanctuary chimpanzees as appropriate and justified. For example, the zoo’s press release about the partnership includes a congratulatory statement from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), a group opposed to NIH’s previous chimpanzee research:

“This important partnership between an accredited zoo and an accredited sanctuary is further evidence that we are in the midst of a new, compassionate era in our treatment of chimpanzees,” says Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States. “Chimpanzees are amazing animals, and these two organizations are helping to define how best to learn from them, educate about them and most importantly, to care for them.”

Increasing public interest in the ethical justification for zoos

HSUS’ position on the ethical justification for keeping chimpanzees in zoos is not readily apparent, and their statement stops short of endorsing the zoo itself, or the perpetuation of captive chimpanzees via breeding in captivity (something that is banned in research centers and sanctuaries). Yet, others have raised similar questions well before the most recent decisions about NIH-funded chimpanzee research (see, for example, Jamieson, 1985; Regan, 1995)– though with significantly less media coverage. Furthermore, serious and thoughtful consideration of the different uses and human interactions with apes continues well beyond the simple and polarized messages that sometimes dominate the recent public portrayals of the issue  (for example, Norton, Maple, & Hutchins, 1995; Gruen, 2014; Bennett & Panicker, 2016; and many others cited within these references) .

Discussions about the role, ethical justification, and necessity of housing chimpanzees in research, zoo, and sanctuary facilities have arisen not only because of the retirement of NIH chimpanzees. Rather, societal consideration of zoos has also increased over time. Most recently, the tragic death of Harambe, a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, along with the closure of the 140 year old Buenos Aires zoo, and movement away from keeping elephants in zoos, have sparked much public dialogue.

The tone of reflection is evident in a number of the titles of articles, op-eds, and blog posts. For example:

The ethical justification for keeping chimpanzees in zoos merits serious and well-informed consideration as it forms the foundation of societal decisions. The same kind of consideration is already mandated for research with animals, including chimpanzees, in the US and elsewhere.  In both cases, the public dialogue and public interests are served by providing facts about the animals’ care and treatment, but also by full and balanced presentation of the justification itself.

Intersections between research, zoos, and sanctuaries

Speaking of Research typically focuses solely on animal research and on animal testing rather than other interactions and uses of animals by humans, including zoos, entertainment, and private ownership.  In the case of chimpanzees, however, the intersections between research, zoos, and sanctuaries are now at the forefront of many of the debates, decisions, personal, and the societal deliberations.

There are a number of reasons for this intersection. Among them: the movement of research chimpanzees to sanctuaries and zoos; the fact that US decisions about research chimpanzees has resulted in a likely shift of research opportunities to zoos and other types of facilities; and, most recently, the new partnership between a federally-funded chimpanzee sanctuary and a zoo.  At the same time, the new standards of care and housing for chimpanzees adopted by one federal agency, the NIH, has raised questions about whether the same standards should be extended to all chimpanzees (for further information and discussion see previous posts “Where should US chimpanzees live?” and “Chimpanzee retirement: Facts, myths, and motivation”).

What are the defining characteristics of a sanctuary?

One of the core issues in this debate is: “What should be the defining characteristics of a sanctuary?”   For some people, the central characteristic is only that the animals receive the best possible care to protect their health and well-being. However, as we have written about previously, this characteristic is not exclusive to sanctuaries. Excellent and humane care can be provided in other settings, including research facilities (for further discussion see: “Can we agree? An ongoing dialogue about where retired research chimpanzees should live”).where us chimpanzees live 07.13.16

For other people, the very concept of sanctuary means that the animals are not used as instruments to achieve any human goal, or to meet any human need. And, moreover, that the animals’ dignity and autonomy receive highest consideration. For example, in an edited volume, “The Ethics of Captivity,” philosopher Lori Gruen says: “There are some captive contexts, such as true sanctuaries, where the goal is not just to promote the well-being of the individuals that live there but to also recognize their dignity and treat the residents with respect” (p. 244). She argues in particular that animals should be provided with the opportunity to choose who to spend time with, other animals or observers, and be able to escape others’ gaze. She also contends that:

“Certain features of current captive practices are fundamentally dignity denying. For example, sending prisoners far away from their families or breaking up social groups in zoo settings denies the most basic choices in addition to disrupting social bonds. Such moves can only be justified if they are clearly in the best interests of the captive, not to serve institutional ends” (p. 245).

In a more recent article, Gruen (2016, “The End of Chimpanzee Research,” Hastings Report) writes in opposition to retiring NIH chimpanzees in the dedicated research facilities in which they currently live. She argues:

“Humans, regardless of gender or gender expression, race, ethnicity, ability, and so on, deserve respect. And I believe respect is also owed to chimpanzees. We make sense of our experiences and values through our relationships with others, and when we are instrumentalized in those relationships, our worth, our interests, and the meaning of our experiences is undermined. This is also true in the case of chimpanzees. … Advocates for chimpanzees oppose retirement in place due to this fundamental difference in [human, our emphasis] values—the ethos of a sanctuary respects the choices and dignity of the animals as opposed to that of a laboratory, where animals are used as tools.” [emphasis added]

What defines the sanctuary ethos and “using animals as tools”?

For many viewing and discussing the current situation, it is the argument about ethos and the degree to which the chimpanzees are “used as tools” that pose challenges to dialogue. One reason is that the terms are not clearly defined or operationalized in a way that allows people with a range of perspectives, experiences, expertise, and philosophical positions to be certain they are discussing the same thing.

For example, it is not entirely clear what behaviors and care practices would provide evidence of an “ethos” that “respects the choices and dignity of the animal.” Ironically, it would also seem that in order to provide an understanding of choice and dignity from the animals’ perspective, detailed scientific research on the animals themselves is needed, where the animals are used as tools to achieve the goal of improving the health and wellbeing of other chimpanzees.

No clear line is apparent that would indicate how we might define all of those cases in which chimpanzees are “used as tools.” For instance, while there may be relatively widespread agreement that chimpanzees used in entertainment are being “used as tools,” there may be far less agreement that chimpanzees in zoos fall in the same category. Similarly, whether noninvasive research qualifies as using chimpanzees “as tools” is also likely to be a point of disagreement. Noninvasive research spans studies of chimpanzees’ cognition, language, puzzle-solving, theory of mind, but also their preferences for various foods, housing, or care strategies, their response to human visitors, and any number of other topics  about which hypotheses can be made and tested with experimental, observational, and other scientific approaches.

The justification for any of this work can readily and reasonably be made in terms of benefits for the animals themselves, for the species, for human understanding, for society. Nonetheless, a reasonable case might also be made that noninvasive research is an instance of using the animals “as tools” because the work can lead to scientific publications, positive publicity and reputational enhancement for institutions and individuals, to satisfaction of human curiosity, and also to new knowledge that benefits animals—but animals other than those participating in the study.

Chimpanzees in research, zoo, and sanctuary facilities

Chimpanzees in research, zoo, and sanctuary facilities

The question of whether noninvasive research—the only type currently allowed in NIH-funded or supported research—is an instance of using the animals as instruments for human goals is not the only one. Moving chimpanzees away from their stable social groups, long-time and familiar homes and caregivers, and into a novel setting labelled “sanctuary,” may also qualify as “using the animals as tools.” In this case, the disruption of the animals’ lives and movement to sanctuary may serve as a tool to make humans “feel better” with potentially little added benefit to the animals themselves (see also K.S. Emmerman, in The Ethics of Captivity, edited by L. Gruen, Oxford University Press, 2016).  It is for this reason that many focus on the outcome – in terms of relative benefit and relative risk to the animals’ health and welfare—in order to make judgments about whether moving the animals is really in the animals’ best interests.

Is the Chimp Haven partnership with Lincoln Park Zoo consistent with the “true sanctuary ethos”?

It is partially for all of these reasons that the recent announcement of a research partnership between Lincoln Park Zoo and the federally-funded sanctuary was surprising to many. It was a surprise because many assumed that chimpanzees retired from research would not then serve in research – and, particularly, that they would not be viewed as a resource for the facility’s fund-raising via fees exchanged for research opportunities. The latter appears to be exactly the rationale expressed by the director of the facility and her collaborators in an abstract for presentation at the upcoming scientific meeting (Spaetz, Taylor, & Fultz, 2016):

“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.”

Perhaps it is not surprising that Chimp Haven has taken this approach. It is similar to that of the Pan African Sanctuaries Alliance (PASA) described by another primatologist, Professor Brian Hare at Duke University. For example, on the advantages of sanctuary-researcher partnerships: “Successful research programs in African sanctuaries will provide researchers with an alternative to more traditional laboratories that do not offer the high quality living environment that are found in Africa. African sanctuaries in turn will become the preferred research venue given their many advantages for non-invasive research.”

At the same time, researchers are described as a resource and benefit to sanctuaries:

“Sanctuary apes can benefit from additional resources provided by researchers through research fees (e.g. for management costs or improvements for research), equipment (e.g. computers, veterinary equipment, etc.) or expertise (e.g. disease screening and other veterinary work). The resources of researchers that never made it to Africa before will be spent in ape range countries to aid in maintaining the high level of care found in African sanctuaries.”

In many ways, Hare, Ross, and others who have advanced sanctuaries and zoos as a viable—and  “ethical”—alternative for science aimed at better understanding chimpanzees appear to share with other scientists an understanding of the value of research in terms of benefits to humans, animals, society, and the environment. They also realize that as dedicated research facilities continue to reduce the number of chimpanzees they house, and eventually house none, sanctuaries – along with zoos – will have “cornered the market” for primatologists, comparative psychologists, biologists, neuroscientists, and others with expertise and interest in scientific research that can answer basic science questions and those relevant to animal health and wellbeing.

There are key differences between the African sanctuary system and Chimp Haven, however. Most primary among them is that PASA exists to care for animals orphaned in Africa as a result of poaching and other human activities and that have no other place to go that can provide for their care. By contrast, for many of the chimpanzees slated to be moved from their current facilities, away from their stable social groups and long-time caregivers in dedicated research centers, Chimp Haven is not the only option.

PASA exists to care for animals and not to create additional animals that are dependent on human care and must be maintained in captive settings. By contrast, Lincoln Park Zoo and others actively seek—through breeding programs— to create more animals that must then be maintained in captive settings. Thus, while one program explicitly seeks to reduce the number of chimpanzees that require human care in captive settings, the other perpetuates the practice.

For zoos, many argue that conservation and education goals provide an ethical justification for maintaining the animals in captivity. Others reject the argument. For example, in an article titled “Shifting Toward an Ethics of Sanctuary,” Gruen argues the logical point: “But holding animals captive has no necessary connection to conservation as there are many successful organizations that engage in conservation efforts that do not hold any animals captive.”


Photo credit: Kathy West

Unresolved questions

A number of questions are likely to remain active points of discussion both within the scientific community and more broadly. They include:

  • Whether continued scientific research should occur—including questions about: what types of work have merit and are justified; who should conduct the work; where it should be conducted; how it should be conducted and supported.
  • How these decisions should be made in absence, or outside of, the well-established and fairly transparent processes for expert and competitive scientific review that has occurred for proposals to NIH and NSF. This is a specific concern for the federal sanctuary that houses federally-owned chimpanzees supported largely by federal funds.
  • Whether retirement in place is the best option for some research chimpanzees.
  • Whether or not sanctuaries should conduct research.
  • Whether or not the federally-funded sanctuary should partner with a zoo.
  • Whether or not zoos should house chimpanzees at all.
  • Whether all chimpanzees in the US should receive the same standards of care as those mandated by the NIH.

In review of those questions and recent events, it is also clear that better dialogue might be facilitated by specifying what is meant by sanctuary. To the extent that research occurs in the federal sanctuary and the sanctuary is used to serve the goals of zoos, it is not at all clear that the term “sanctuary” has the common meaning that appears in public view. That is a problem for a number of reasons. Among them, when it comes to public dialogue and public decisions – both relevant to the federal funding that flows to Chimp Haven* – it is important to be clear about what retirement to sanctuary means and about how it is different from continuing to care for the animals in the facilities in which they currently live.

(*Federal funds provide 75% of the costs for maintaining NIH-owned chimpanzees at Chimp Haven, in 2015, according to NIH, this was $2.77 million. Chimp Haven currently appears to have a $12.9 million federal contract and over $30M in federal funds were invested in facility construction, chimpanzee transfers, and care. There are a number of other chimpanzee sanctuaries in the US, these sanctuaries are not currently part of the federal system and do not appear to be eligible for federal funds.)

Comparison of key features of research, zoo, and sanctuary facilities

The tables accompanying this post (above and below) outline some of the key features that are associated with different types of facilities, some of which may affect animals’ care and others that affect research. The tables cannot account for variation across every facility, but rather shows the typical case for research and zoos, what is known about the federally-funded sanctuary, and what would appear to be the case for a “true” sanctuary as it is defined by Gruen and others. Provision of choice is held up as a central defining element of sanctuary care. Thus, the second table focuses on elements of choice – or autonomy – that are central to the daily lives of animals living in a range of captive settings. As illustrated in both tables, there is a great deal of overlap between the various types of facilities.

Comments that can help further refine this work towards common understanding of the language used in discussion of chimpanzees in the US are welcome. We will return to this topic in the future, with analysis of the information in the tables, comparisons across facilities, and the implications for decision-making about chimpanzees.

Allyson J. Bennett

@2016 AJ Bennett comparison table research zoo sanctuary Table 2

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

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.