Thursday, May 2, 2024

By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block

Despite a recent court ruling and the animal welfare benefits of sanctuary retirement, media reports indicate the National Institutes of Health is still refusing to allow 26 chimpanzees warehoused in a government laboratory in New Mexico to spend the rest of their lives at Chimp Haven. These chimps have been at this government facility since at least 2001.

A recent NIH statement to the media claims that none of the 26 chimps, all previously subjected to research experiments, can be moved because they are “moribund.” While this term is generally understood to mean at the brink of death, the agency now claims that the 26 chimps have been moribund for years, since at least early 2021. We strongly dispute this claim as it’s hard to imagine how a chimp who’s been alive for more than three years can be considered at the brink of death.

These recent comments are unfortunately part of a pattern of indifference toward the futures of these chimps and their quality of life. In 2019, NIH reversed its original plans to move all chimps to sanctuary and claimed that none of the chimpanzees living at Alamogordo Primate Facility in New Mexico (at that point, there were 44 chimps) could be moved due to health concerns, despite the fact that sick and elderly chimpanzees are frequently relocated to sanctuaries without incident. In fact, Congress specifically directed NIH (the federal government’s primary biomedical research agency) to send all federal chimpanzees previously used in research to Chimp Haven—the federal sanctuary in Louisiana—not least because of its capacity to provide the best possible veterinary and behavioral care for older chimps with chronic health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, which require close observation and management.

In a nefarious twist, the initial determination that all the chimps were too frail to leave the laboratory—the recommendation that NIH adopted in 2019—was made by a veterinarian employed by Charles River Laboratories, the same company that holds a lucrative contract from NIH to maintain the chimps where they are currently housed—a clear conflict of interest.

We were outraged by this decision, and so were more than 150,000 of our supporters who contacted NIH demanding that the agency send the Alamogordo chimps to sanctuary. In 2021, when NIH still refused to take positive action, we sued, charging that not allowing federally owned chimpanzees formerly used in research to be moved to Chimp Haven was illegal. In December 2022, a federal judge agreed, finding that NIH’s decision to deny sanctuary retirement to dozens of chimpanzees because of their chronic health conditions was a direct violation of the federal Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection (CHIMP) Act. NIH appealed the ruling, but in March the agency abandoned its appeal, allowing the judgment to stand. After this victory, we were hopeful that the agency would finally do the right thing. And we still hope so.

Several of the chimpanzees at Alamogordo could live for another decade or more, making NIH’s recent statement that it still has no plans to allow the remaining population of 26 chimpanzees to be moved to Chimp Haven even more troubling.

The agency’s recent statement also appears to directly contradict written remarks made by NIH director Dr. Monica Bertagnolli during her confirmation hearing last fall. When asked about the fate of the Alamogordo chimps, she indicated she was "committed to carrying out the goals of the CHIMP Act to ensure that these chimpanzees get the sanctuary and care they deserve."

Chimp Haven, the world’s largest chimpanzee sanctuary, is a lush 200-acre forested environment tailored to the needs of chimpanzees once used in biomedical research. Hundreds of chimpanzees have thrived there, a place where specialists trained in chimpanzee behavior and medicine have created an environment that allows the chimps to enjoy many of the experiences they would have had in the wild. After decades of trauma and pain, these chimpanzees deserve nothing less.  

In stark contrast, the Alamogordo facility where the chimps are currently housed is a sterile laboratory with barren outdoor enclosures—the very same facility in which they were subjected to harmful experiments.

Despite this vivid disparity, warehousing the chimpanzees at the Alamogordo Primate Facility costs more than double what it would cost to provide them a superior life at Chimp Haven—a blatant misuse of taxpayer dollars.

It is unconscionable that NIH has allowed 18 chimpanzees who could have enjoyed sanctuary life to die while the agency dragged its feet—and it is even more outrageous that the agency might circumvent a court ruling and condemn another 26 chimps to live the rest of their lives without ever experiencing the freedom of a sanctuary.

We cannot allow this flagrant disregard for animal welfare and taxpayer dollars to continue. The agency should disavow these recent statements and abide by its legal obligations to retire the chimps to sanctuary. Join us in demanding that NIH allow all the remaining chimps at Alamogordo Primate Facility to be moved to Chimp Haven

Kitty Block is CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.