The Waiting Game

From Animal Action, Summer 2016

“Retired” NIH chimpanzees still haven’t been moved to a sanctuary—and for many, time is running out

Some are in the twilight of their lives. Born in captivity, they’ve spent all their days, all their years, all their decades subjected to invasive biomedical experiments or forced breeding—their infants taken away and experimented upon, all at the hands of the U.S. government. But age and illness have taken their toll. And even though they’re no longer research subjects, without quick action, they will die never having known freedom.

Others have also spent their lives being exploited in the name of science. But they remember a time before the laboratory. Captured in the wild when they were young, they now have the opportunity to once again find a life beyond their cages. Unfortunately, the likelihood that they will actually experience that life grows dimmer with each passing day.

Last November, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) made headlines with its announcement that all of its remaining research chimpanzees would be retired to sanctuaries. This followed an earlier NIH decision to retire all but 50 government-owned chimpanzees used for invasive biomedical research. The era of government-supported chimpanzee experiments was finally coming to a close.

As it turns out, however, major challenges remain before many chimpanzees get the retirement they so richly deserve.


A report released in April of this year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) on the NIH Chimpanzee Management Program revealed that although the chimpanzees were no longer being used for experiments, the vast majority of them were still being confined in research facilities—with no plan to transfer them to a sanctuary.

In fact, of the 301 chimpanzees eligible for retirement, the GAO noted that there are plans in place to transfer only 19 to Chimp Haven, the National Chimpanzee Sanctuary. In its report, the GAO contends that the NIH has failed to develop or communicate a clear plan for the transfer of any of the remaining chimpanzees.

Chimpanzees are generally transferred in small groups; however, this is not the reason for the very slow rate of transfer. The NIH reportedly canceled several transfers of animals at the last minute, incurring costs in the preparation and underscoring their lack of a working management plan. 

Even if plans were in place, however, there is another hurdle: capacity. According to Chimp Haven President and CEO Cathy Spraetz, the lack of space—and the lack of funding to create additional space—is a major obstacle preventing the retirement of laboratory chimpanzees.

“The Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection—or CHIMP—Act, which was signed into law in 2000, allowed for construction of the sanctuary,” notes Spraetz. “[But] when the CHIMP Act was reauthorized in 2013, the clause allowing federal funds to be used specifically for construction was eliminated.”

Chimp Haven currently has room to receive only 50 of the 301 chimpanzees, many of whom will require special medical care and socialization time.

To address this issue, Chimp Haven is embarking upon an ambitious capacity expansion plan to raise 100% of the funds needed to accommodate an additional 100-150 chimpanzees. As one of the original funders of Chimp Haven, NAVS is proud to support this effort as part of our Assisting Primates Entering Sanctuary (APES) campaign, which will ensure that our Sanctuary Fund can provide critical resources to sanctuaries that are providing retirement and care to animals that were once used in research.

For now, however, the chimpanzees wait. But for many, time is not on their side.

The average NIH-owned or supported chimpanzee is 30 years old, and more than one quarter of the chimpanzees now eligible for retirement are considered “geriatric.” Two-thirds of the chimpanzees are either infected with HIV or hepatitis, or are chronically ill with another condition. It is therefore anticipated that many of these animals will die before they ever reach their promised sanctuary, or soon thereafter.

In 2015, for example, 13 chimpanzees were transferred to Chimp Haven from the Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research. Most were of an advanced age or chronically ill. Five died within a year of arriving at the sanctuary. It is expected that 5-10% of the current population of NIH chimpanzees will die each year because of disease or old age. And while this attrition will ultimately reduce the capacity needed to house the NIH chimpanzees, each day they spend waiting for retirement is one less day these long-suffering animals will experience freedom from their laboratory cages.


Not only is expediting the transfer of these government-owned chimpanzees to a sanctuary good for the chimps, it’s also good for the government—and for the U.S. taxpayers who fund it.

For its report, the GAO evaluated the status of the chimpanzee management program, as well as the costs for the care and transfer of these chimpanzees and the potential savings in making the transfer to Chimp Haven. The report concluded that consolidating the remaining chimpanzees at Chimp Haven would result in an overall savings for the government. This is due in part to the economy of scale that arises from sharing resources among chimpanzees living in a single facility, but also because Chimp Haven receives 25% of its funding from private donations, which lessens the government’s financial contribution for their care.


The good news for the chimpanzees is that the NIH is finally in the process of developing an implementation plan for the transfer of the chimpanzees—a plan based primarily on the well-being and safety of the chimpanzees and secondarily on cost savings to the government by housing chimpanzees at the sanctuary rather than at any of their research facilities.

It is anticipated that the transfer of all NIH chimpanzees will move forward more quickly once Chimp Haven’s expansion is in place.

“These chimpanzees deserve retirement,” says Spraetz

And with NAVS’—and your—support, it will happen.


This entry was posted in News and tagged on September 20, 2017.
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