Bioethics Forum Essay
Not-So-Golden Years for NIH’s Retired Chimpanzees
The National Institutes of Health recently announced that it will retire-in-place the remaining 44 chimpanzees at the Alamogordo Primate Facility in Alamogordo, New Mexico, rather than transfer them to a sanctuary as originally planned. NIH’s decision is disappointing for those who believe that the chimpanzees—many of whom have spent decades in research—should experience the freedom and quality of life a sanctuary would provide.
The retirement of approximately 300 NIH-owned or supported research chimpanzees began in 2015, when NIH said it would no longer fund studies using chimpanzees. But the plan to send the animals to Chimp Haven, a sanctuary in Louisiana, is proceeding slowly, and 178 federally owned or supported chimpanzees still reside in three research facilities while NIH works through its process for determining which of the remaining animals are healthy enough to be relocated.
NIH’s process, however, has been criticized by groups that have noted that both the criteria used and the expertise represented were too narrow. The panel, comprised of NIH veterinarians, did not represent the broad range of perspectives that seems necessary for such a complex assessment. Primatologists with different areas of expertise could have provided a more comprehensive assessment of long-term welfare. Sanctuary staff members could have weighed in regarding their experience caring for animals with similar health concerns. Ethicists with expertise in animal welfare could have contributed to the discussion as well. Conversations about well-being and what makes a good life involve inherently ethical considerations and are not strictly medical issues.
Perhaps more concerning is the deference the NIH panel demonstrated toward the recommendations made by the facility currently housing the animals. It is striking that—for all 44 reviews—the NIH panel concurred with the facility’s initial recommendation and did not exercise its authority to request additional supporting information. Although facility staff are well positioned to comment on the current health status of the animals, they represent a narrow range of perspectives. Moreover, they are subject to a significant financial conflict of interest since they will continue receiving funding to maintain any animals that remain in their care.
Animal welfare advocates have argued that chimpanzees who can be transported safely to sanctuary should be and that retirement-in-place should be reserved for only the frailest animals. The high number of chimpanzees deemed unfit for transfer from the Alamogordo facility raises questions about the appropriateness of the criteria used. It also suggests the possibility of a similar outcome for chimpanzees remaining in other research facilities since the Alamogordo animals were the first to go through NIH’s review process. The review panel is now shifting its focus to 63 chimpanzees at the Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research (part of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center) in Bastrop, Texas. If all of them are also deemed too frail for transfer to sanctuary, NIH will be on track to retire-in-place one-third to half of the chimpanzees originally slated for sanctuary. This outcome would be a tremendous failure of NIH to follow through on its commitment to these animals and the people who care about them.
Angela Hvitved is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University working on issues in bioethics and animal ethics. Twitter: @AngelaHvitved
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