NIH plans to reduce its use of chimpanzees in biomedical research.WIKIMEDIA, THOMAS LERSCH

National Institutes of Health (NIH) director Francis Collins announced plans this morning (June 26) to accept and implement changes to its chimpanzee research program, as recommended in January by the Council of Councils, an independent working group of expert advisors. The recommendations were based on findings from a report about chimps’ use in research issued in December 2011 by the Institute of Medicine.

In accordance with the working group’s guidance, the NIH has decided to retire most of its approximately 360 chimpanzees currently housed in research laboratories to sanctuaries—a process that could take a couple of years. The agency plans to maintain, but not breed, a population of 50 animals for use in future research, but it has not decided which chimpanzees it will keep nor where they will be housed. In 5 years, the NIH...

“This represents a significant, positive, albeit incremental step forward,” said Daniel Povinelli, a biologist at the University of Louisiana, and a former member of the Council of Councils working group.

“Americans have benefitted greatly from the chimpanzees’ service to biomedical research, but new scientific methods and technologies have rendered their use in research largely unnecessary,” said Collins in a statement. “After extensive consideration with the expert guidance of many, I am confident that greatly reducing their use in biomedical research is scientifically sound and the right thing to do.”

K.C. Kent Lloyd of the University of California, Davis, who co-chaired the Council of Councils, said, “I am very pleased to read that Dr. Collins and NIH leadership have accepted most of our recommendations, which will contribute greatly to enhancing the oversight, stewardship, and welfare of NIH-owned and supported chimpanzees.”

Other plans for adopting the working group’s recommendations include: establishing a review panel to consider the use of chimpanzees in future research that satisfies criteria laid by the IOM report, such as minimally invasive projects involving genomic and behavioral research; winding down research projects that do not meet IOM’s criteria; and providing ethologically appropriate housing facilities that attempt to mimic the animals’ natural settings.

One recommendation related to chimpanzees’ housing that the NIH chose not to implement is a minimum living space requirement of 1,000 square feet. James Anderson, who oversees the NIH Chimpanzee Management Program, said at today’s press conference that more research is necessary to determine the most appropriate space requirements for the animals.

“Collin’s decision not to accept the working group’s recommendation for the amount of space required per animal, could open the door to designating some existing biomedical centers as part of the federal sanctuary system,” Povinelli said. “This would not be in the best long-term interests of the chimpanzees in question."

Funds available to the NIH for retiring chimpanzees have been nearly depleted—only $800,000 of the $30 million allocated under the CHIMP Act of 2002 is still available. The agency will be seeking additional funds from Congress to implement its chimp retirement plan.

Today’s announcement follows the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposal from earlier this month to grant captive chimpanzees the same endangered species status that wild chimpanzees had since 1990.

“This is an historic moment and major turning point for chimpanzees in laboratories—some who have been languishing in concrete housing for over 50 years,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, in a statement. “It is crucial now to ensure that the release of hundreds of chimpanzees to sanctuary becomes a reality.”

Correction (June 26): In an earlier version of this story, Daniel Povinelli was described as an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. Povenilli is a biologist at the University of Louisiana. The Scientist regrets the error.

Interested in reading more?

The Scientist ARCHIVES

Become a Member of

Receive full access to more than 35 years of archives, as well as TS Digest, digital editions of The Scientist, feature stories, and much more!
Already a member?