How to Decide Whether Ailing Chimps Get Moved to a Sanctuary

Sandy was a lab chimp, now retired at Chimp Haven in Keithville, La. The N.I.H. is deciding whether old, ill chimps formerly used in research should be moved to sanctuaries like Chimp Haven, or retire in place.

Faylene is a 35-year-old chimpanzee now housed at the Alamogordo Primate Facility in New Mexico.

She is owned by the National Institutes of Health, along with 50 or so other chimpanzees there, most of whom have been used in biomedical research.

The N.I.H. decided in 2015 that all federally-owned or supported chimps would be transported to sanctuaries, which would seem to make pretty clear the future of about 270 chimps (as of March) it still owns or supports outside of sanctuaries.

But nothing has been simple since the government first started seriously questioning the value of research in chimps in 2011. Gradually, in a series of steps, they first banned new biomedical research and then stopped all biomedical research on all N.I.H. chimps in 2015. That same year the Fish and Wildlife Service declared all chimps, even those in captivity, endangered, effectively banning all invasive research on all chimps, whoever owns them.

Numbers change as chimps move to sanctuaries and die. But the N.I.H. census as of Jan. 1 counted 130 federally-owned chimpanzees still housed at the Michael E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research in Bastrop, Tex., and 79 federally-supported chimpanzees remaining at the Southwest National Primate Research Center in San Antonio. It counted 79 at Alamogordo, but at least 23 of those have since moved to a sanctuary.

The latest twist in the seven-year saga of changing the federal approach to chimpanzees in research is the question of whether chimps in ill health should be moved at all, or stay where they are, retiring in place.

Earlier this month, the N.I.H. Council of Councils, a title that deserves some sort of award for cryptic naming, approved a working group report on the question.

James Anderson, the N.I.H. director for program coordination, planning, and strategic initiatives, said the working group was established in the first place because of the need for a common framework to deal with moving old and ailing chimps. Each lab or facility had its own method for assessing chimp health, but the report sets out common criteria.

The problem the N.I.H. faces, he said, is, “O.K., we’re going to move all these chimps. But we don’t want to kill them,” in the process. The chimps suffer from age-related diseases like diabetes and heart problems, and also from the effects of the experiments they were part of, infection with viruses, for example, although the lasting effects of those infections is hard to pin down. About 7.5 percent of the chimpanzees owned and supported by N.I.H. die each year, he said.

The report urges, once again, that all chimps should be transferred to sanctuaries, unless such a move is “extremely likely” to shorten their lives. The council forwarded the report to the director of the N.I.H. There will be a 60-day public comment period and Francis Collins, director of the N.I.H., will likely make a final decision on the recommendations in September.

This news might seem to be no news at all, in the sense that the movement of chimps to sanctuaries will continue along as it has been, with, it would seem, rare exceptions.

But there are details to be worked out, and the fact that the working group was established at all indicates a deep difference in opinion about what a good end of life is for captive chimpanzees.

Simply put, one side thinks that many chimps may be better off where they are, largely because of high-quality veterinary care, and the potential stress of the health exams and transportation involved in a move.

The other side holds that the relative freedom of a sanctuary like Chimp Haven, with outdoor spaces for most of the chimps to roam and more natural social grouping, is better even if the chimps have a short time to live.

The difference is both philosophical and practical.

Animal welfare activists, like Laura Bonar of Animal Protection of New Mexico, see the issue as the same as end-of-life care for human beings. Ms. Bonar has been one of the leaders in the effort to stop experimentation on chimpanzees and move them to sanctuaries.

She argues that unless a chimpanzee is about to die within days, it should be able to spend its last days at a sanctuary.

“I don’t see anything that should preclude any of those chimpanzees from being transferred,” she said. And, she added, the report of the working group “is just looking at the risk. What about the benefits?”

Veterinarians in research labs see things differently. Charles River Laboratories, which runs the Alamogordo facility under a contract with the N.I.H. referred me to the N.I.H. for any and all questions.

But at a recent visit to the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, I talked to Joyce Cohen, a veterinarian and associate director of animal resources there, who is not involved in the N.I.H. process because Yerkes owns its chimps. She argued that the care of chimpanzees at Yerkes and other research institutions has many benefits.

In a recent email, she followed up on those comments. “Based on my knowledge of research centers and sanctuaries that care for chimpanzees,” she wrote, “the differences in housing between the two settings are limited.”

And she emphasized the quality of veterinary care at research institutions, including easy access to specialists. She wrote, “The decision of whether to transfer a chimpanzee to a sanctuary or choose to retire it in place should be based on its individual veterinary, social and behavioral needs.”

The labs that once experimented on chimpanzees do so no longer, and the facility at Alamogordo has been run for years for chimps who are essentially retired.

But it lacks the outdoor spaces of Chimp Haven and Ms. Bonar said there are important aspects of the sanctuary, like materials to create nests each day, expanded social groups, and a fundamental commitment to the well-being of the chimps.

She said she saw an ethical imperative to take even ill chimps to a sanctuary that was not addressed by the working group, which was asked only to look at the effects of a transfer on ailing chimps.

“All of these chimpanzees were bred and put through torture and torment by humans,” she said. “Where is the piece about what is owed to these individuals who have never had a chance at what a normal life would look like?”

Ms. Bonar has sought documents on the Alamogordo chimps under the Freedom of Information Act. She sent me a copy of a July 6, 2017 email to Sheri Hild, an administrator at the N.I.H. from a Charles River employee (the name was redacted), that listed 57 chimps as ineligible for transfer because of health reasons.

Faylene was one of them, because of her age and high blood pressure and a uterine mass.

It would seem that the new guidelines would allow her to be moved, but as one of the participants in the recent N.I.H. council meeting noted in a comment on the report, the criteria are not exact.

Paul Johnson, director of the Yerkes primate center, raised a concern about the phrase “extremely likely to shorten their lives.”

He thought it was “not clear what extremely likely means,” and suggested it be replaced with something like, “at significantly increased risk for transfer based on standardized risk assessment criteria.”

What that would mean for Faylene is still an open question.

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