Fulfilling a Promise of Freedom for Chimpanzees

This November will mark three years since the announcement by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that it would end its support of invasive biomedical research on chimpanzees. Per the CHIMP (Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection) Act, which established Chimp Haven as the National Chimpanzee Sanctuary, and subsequent legislation, this meant that all NIH-owned and supported chimpanzees would be guaranteed permanent retirement in a sanctuary.

As staunch supporters of the CHIMP Act and Chimp Haven, as well as the end of the use of all animals in science, NAVS celebrated this important victory. But as we look back on this historic moment, the sad truth is that the promise made to these animals hasn’t been fulfilled.

In 2016, our Animal Action cover story “The Waiting Game” outlined the first wave of problems. We detailed a Government Accountability Office report that revealed that while the animals were no longer being used for experiments, there were no plans in place to transfer most chimpanzees to sanctuaries. The costs and time associated with constructing housing and relocating hundreds of chimpanzees have further contributed to the delay.

But with the population of chimpanzees aging, time continues to run out to get them out of research facilities and into their sanctuary. An estimated 5-10% of the current population of NIH chimpanzees still held in labs will die each year because of disease or old age.

Now, another threat risks keeping some of these chimpanzees from true retirement.

The move to have chimps “age in place” in research facilities instead of moving them to their sanctuary has long been advocated by the research community. At a recent NIH meeting on chimpanzee retirement, a council member even suggested “aging in place” as an alternative to its original directive to transfer all government-owned or supported chimpanzees to Chimp Haven.

Following years of pressure from the research community, this notion, unfortunately, continues to gain traction. The NIH recently announced the organization of a working group whose purpose will be “to develop recommendations for veterinarians to consider when determining whether or not to move a chimpanzee” from the laboratory to Chimp Haven—not how best to move them, but whether they should even be moved in the first place.

Proponents of “aging-in-place” cite animal well-being as a primary reason to keep chimpanzees from being transferred to sanctuaries, but this argument has been called into question. In a 2017 article in Science magazine, Primatologist Frans de Waal of Emory University criticized the group housing found at many research facilities as having “stress-causing design.”[1] De Waal also said that even the best environments at research facilities don’t compare to a true sanctuary like Chimp Haven. 

Money is also a consideration. Research laboratories receive as much as $80 per day, per animal, to house the “retired” chimpanzees—far more than it costs to care for the chimpanzees in an ethologically-appropriate sanctuary setting. That adds up to millions of dollars per year in revenue for the labs that goes out the door along with the chimpanzees.

The CHIMP Act was designed to be a humane, cost-effective solution for chimpanzees retired from research. Sadly, “aging in place” is neither humane nor cost-effective.

The NIH working group’s recommendations will have life-changing consequences for animals who have already been subjected to so much and waited so long, and whose time to be able to experience freedom is running out.

NAVS is urging the NIH to be fully transparent regarding the membership of the working group, emphasizing the importance of the group being free of any advisors with a vested interest in keeping the chimpanzees in labs. We feel that a group designed to address the chimpanzees’ fates should be comprised exclusively of veterinarians, behaviorists and other specialists with the expertise in safely transporting and caring for the chimpanzees as they make their way to Chimp Haven.

“Aging-in-place” would represent yet another tragic blow to the hope that began with the passage of the CHIMP Act. After years—and in some cases decades—of having their bodies and minds abused and exploited, it is time to keep the promise made to these chimpanzees and to give them the retirement they deserve.


NAVS is committed to supporting the sanctuaries that will make true retirement for these chimpanzees—and all “retired” research primates—possible. Learn more about our APES (Assisting Primates Entering Sanctuary) Campaign at www.navs.org/APES.

[1] http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/06/research-lab-chimps-over-why-have-so-few-been-retired-sanctuaries

This entry was posted in News and tagged on April 16, 2018.
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