By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
Thirty-seven chimpanzees languishing at a New Mexico primate laboratory are still waiting for the National Institutes of Health to fulfil a promise it made in 2015—to retire them to sanctuary after a lifetime spent in research.
Today, we’re giving these animals a helping hand by suing the federal agency, which has shamelessly reneged on this promise.
Following long-running efforts, including our successful legal petition to grant captive chimpanzees the highest protections under the Endangered Species Act, the NIH announced in 2015 that it was ending invasive testing on chimpanzees and moving all of the animals it owns or supports in labs to sanctuary. Hundreds of chimps of all ages have since been moved to the federal sanctuary, Chimp Haven, in Louisiana, and are thriving there.
Unfortunately for some chimpanzees, that day never came.
Soon after the announcement, Charles River Laboratories, which receives a lucrative government contract funded with taxpayer dollars to warehouse chimpanzees at the Alamogordo Primate Facility on Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, pushed back against retiring many of the chimpanzees in their facility. The lab claimed that these chimps are too fragile to move and should instead spend the rest of their lives at the very laboratory where they were subjected to research protocols.
As a result, in 2019, NIH went back on its promise to give these chimpanzees a better life, the one they deserved, citing an internal review that agreed with Charles River’s claims—despite the fact that NIH’s own population model shows that the chimpanzees will likely live for years to come, some potentially until 2048. This could mean that the chimpanzees at APF could be condemned to at least another 25 years of life inside a barren laboratory facility instead of the verdant and peaceful environment of a sanctuary where they can socialize with other chimpanzees, enjoy fresh air and superior veterinary and behavioral care.
This is simply unacceptable, and we will not stand by while the NIH blithely ignores the suffering and needs of these highly intelligent and sensitive animals. Our lawsuit, filed today with Animal Protection of New Mexico in the federal District Court of Maryland, would compel NIH to abide by a law passed by Congress 20 years ago, the Chimpanzee Health Improvement Maintenance and Protection (CHIMP) Act, that mandates all federally owned chimpanzees who are no longer needed for research be retired to federal sanctuary.
Congress, in passing the law, recognized our nation’s moral responsibility to provide lifetime care for these animals in the best possible environment. By not retiring the chimpanzees at APF to sanctuary the NIH is not just deserting this moral responsibility, it is also in clear violation of U.S. law.
What’s more, the NIH’s argument that the chimps are would be at risk in the event of a transfer just doesn’t make sense. Of the hundreds of chimpanzees—all ages and health conditions—who have moved from laboratories to Chimp Haven, not one has died during transport. Independent and expert veterinarians with decades of chimp experience have assessed the chimpanzees at APF, their medical records, or both, and said that these chimpanzees are not in such dire health that they would be at risk if transported to sanctuary.
We already know that chimpanzees retired from research thrive when placed in a sanctuary environment. At Chimp Haven, there are dozens of such happy stories, like that of Ladybird, a chimpanzee who was retired to the sanctuary in her 50s and just celebrated her 60th birthday.
The NIH knows that we have been in this fight for a long time, and we do not give up. We are committed to ensuring every chimpanzee owned or supported by the federal government has a peaceful retirement to look forward to at a sanctuary.
Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.