The federal government said Wednesday it will send 310 chimpanzees into early retirement because of new opinions on whether it’s moral to use the prized primates for biomedical research.
The National Institutes of Health will retain, but not breed, a colony of up to 50 chimpanzees for potential use, but only in research that cannot be conducted in any other way. It could take years for the agency to secure the space and funding needed to transfer the primates designated for retirement into the Federal Sanctuary System, NIH Director Francis S. Collins said.
Dr. Collins hailed the decision as part of a new, “compassionate era” of research involving chimps.
“Chimpanzees are our closest relatives,” he told reporters in a conference call. “We have learned much about ourselves by careful studies of their behavior and their biology,” and “they deserve special consideration as special creatures with this closeness to humanity.”
The decision by NIH, a research branch of the Department of Health and Human Services, reflects changing attitudes on whether it is necessary to keep chimps in captivity for scientific purposes.
Also this month, the Department of Fish and Wildlife proposed making all chimpanzees endangered, a decision with major implications for both government and private research, since it would require a permit for their use.
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The NIH said it must work with Congress to free up the funds needed to relocate and take care of the retiring chimps. Lawmakers established the sanctuary system as part of the Chimp Act in 2002, but capped funding for it at $30 million.
“We are extremely close to hitting that $ 30 million limit,” Mr. Collins told reporters.
The Humane Society of the United States hailed Wednesday’s announcement, despite its disappointment in NIH’s decision to retain some of the animals for potential projects.
“This is a historic moment and major turning point for chimpanzees in laboratories — some who have been languishing in concrete housing for over 50 years,” President and CEO Wayne Pacelle said.
There are about 850 chimps in research captivity in the United States; the government owns about 360 and private laboratories own the rest, according to the Humane Society.
“We hope the labs will decide it’s not worth investing in this anymore,” said Kathleen Conlee, vice president of animal research issues for the society.
In 2010, Democratic Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Tom Udall of New Mexico, and then-Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico asked the National Academy of Sciences to explore “the merits of continued invasive research using chimpanzees.”
By December of that year, Dr. Collins said he commissioned a study by the Institute of Medicine on whether it is necessary to still use chimps. He set up a working group to review the findings, released in late 2011, and the adoption of almost all of its recommendations led to Wednesday’s announcement.
The NIH found little evidence to support one of the findings — that there should be 1,000 square feet of space for each chimp, Dr. Collins said.
It may ultimately agree with the stipulation, but it would have an impact on costs, he said. Maintaining 50 chimps would translate into 50,000 square feet of space, “which gets to be really quite substantial.”
Dr. Collins said Wednesday’s decision has no implications for research involving other types of animals, which he described as a “critical part” of disease prevention.