Expert Voices

U.S. Research Chimps Heading to New Homes (Op-Ed)

Chimps playing together
Chimpanzees at Chimp Haven, a national chimpanzee sanctuary in Louisiana, grooming and playing with one another. (Image credit: Chimp Haven)

Wayne Pacelle is the president and chief executive officer of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). This Op-Ed is adapted from a post on the blog A Humane Nation, where the content ran before appearing in LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Recently, the U.S. Senate gave final approval to a bill — backed by The HSUS and the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) — that provides millions of dollars in federal funding to help transfer chimpanzees from laboratories to sanctuaries. Passing this legislation was essential for NIH to act upon its plan to retire nearly 90 percent of government-owned chimpanzees.

A team of Republicans and Democrats from both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate came together in an extraordinary show of support, including Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Ia.) chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman, as well as Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), its ranking minority member; and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), its ranking minority member.

Together, they passed legislation that will allow NIH the flexibility to proceed with using the funding, and give retired research chimpanzees the opportunity to live the remainder of their days in suitable sanctuaries.

The passage of this legislation, which was signed on Saturday by President Barack Obama, caps a remarkable series of successful initiatives executed by The HSUS and kick-started by an HSUS undercover investigation that broke on ABC News in March 2009. One of our brave investigators was hired by the largest primate laboratory, with the largest population of chimps, and found not only mistreatment, isolation and breeding of chimpanzees in violation of federal policy, but also long-term warehousing of chimps. Many of the chimps were not even being used in experiments. The question was: What's the point of keeping them in these deficient environments, and breeding more of them, if so many are not even used?

The investigation added fuel to the effort to get chimps out of labs, and The HSUS helped spearhead the effort, working with federal lawmakers, leaders at NIH, and with the U.S. Department of the Interior during the last four years. The final passage of the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection (CHIMP) Act amendments was a milestone on a set of achievements with the promise of new lives for these great apes and an end to decades of persecution.

The turning point came when an expert panel of scientists — called to examine the value of chimpanzee research after The HSUS's allies in Congress requested the review — determined that the use of chimpanzees was "largely unnecessary." The panel said chimps had been useful in certain areas in the past, but that there now are other ways available to gather insights and information.

Some months later, NIH director Francis Collins accepted the recommendations and announced, in dramatic fashion, that NIH would in fact retire the vast majority of its government-owned chimpanzees to sanctuaries.

Then, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, responding to a legal petition from The HSUS, the Jane Goodall Institute, and other groups, proposed that all chimps, including the captives, be listed as endangered — a more stringent standard of protection with consequences for people (including those at laboratories) who possess chimps.

As The HSUS and its allies gained ground in those areas, we realized that there was a limit on the amount of money in NIH's budget for sanctuary support, as per the CHIMP Act, which The HSUS helped to pass 13 years ago.

There was no similar restriction on funding for the housing of chimps in laboratories, so NIH was faced with the prospect of being forced to keep retired chimpanzees in barren lab cages rather than spend the money more efficiently on higher-welfare sanctuaries; this barrier not only threatened future retirement of chimpanzees, but funding for care of chimpanzees already retired at Chimp Haven in Louisiana, the national chimpanzee sanctuary.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives approved an amendment to the CHIMP Act that removed the barrier, and the Senate followed with swift, final approval. This decision came down to the wire — with sanctuary funding expected to run out quickly.

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Meanwhile, The HSUS — thanks to its generous supporters — has donated more than $600,000 to chimp sanctuaries to support the movement of more chimps to those superior facilities.

All in all, it's an incredible example of what The HSUS brings to the animal movement: an ability to work with executive agencies as diverse as NIH and the Interior Department, to move legislation in Congress at a time when that body is viewed as dysfunctional, and partnering with hands-on groups (in this case, chimp sanctuaries) that are the right resting place for the retired animals.

We extend our thanks to so many of our supporters, but especially so to Jon Stryker, Audrey Burnand and Jane Goodall. And we thank many lawmakers and other public officials, with a special shout-out to NIH director Francis Collins for his incredible leadership on the issue.

Also, hats off to the many HSUS staff members who worked tirelessly on the issue for years — from the undercover investigator, to our communications team, to our Animal Research Issues department, to federal affairs and the animal protection litigation unit.

This is a good move for taxpayers, but it's also a reclaiming of society's humanity and our kinship with the great apes. They deserve not just survival, but peace — and now we are making that dream come true.

One final thought: All six original chimpanzee masterpieces featured in our Chimpanzee Art Contest were auctioned off on eBay between Nov. 4 and Nov. 14, raising more than $5,300 for the benefit of the North American Sanctuary Alliance. For more information on available prints, click here.

Pacelle's most recent Op-Ed was "Why is a University Accepting Random-Source Research Dogs?" This article was adapted from "Great News for Great Apes," which first appeared on The HSUS blog A Humane Nation. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.