The tides began to turn for chimps in 2010, when the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) sparked public outcry after moving chimpanzees from an Air Force base in Alamogordo, New Mexico, to a biomedical research facility in Texas. Following this outcry, the NIH requested an independent assessment of the utility of chimpanzees in invasive and behavioral research by the Institute of Medicine (IOM).
The IOM’s report, released in December 2011, stated that most uses of chimpanzees for research were, in its own words, largely unnecessary. Following this report, the NIH created a working group to implement the IOM’s findings which resulted in the NIH’s decision to retire most, but not all, chimpanzees to sanctuary in 2013. The NIH would hold 50 chimpanzees in reserve, “just in case” the need for them arose.
Then, after further pressure from animal advocates, in September 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) removed the split listing they had held for chimpanzees, making all chimpanzees, wild or captive, members of an endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. This rule change meant that research on chimpanzees would require special permits, and within just a few months, the NIH made the decision to retire the remaining 50 chimpanzees. For more about the process that led up to this decision, please see the more detailed timelines available here, here, and here.
While the retirement of the NIH chimpanzees is huge, it is important to note that there is not an outright ban on research on chimpanzees in the U.S. Private institutions are still able to conduct research on chimpanzees, but they will now have to answer to the USFWS, and do so without the monetary support of the NIH, which was the major funder of research on chimpanzees previously.
With this recent victory, the U.S. joins an international community that has been a few steps ahead in weighing animal suffering against supposed benefits of animal research. Internationally, bans or restrictions on research on chimpanzees exist in New Zealand, Australia, Japan, the European Union, and more countries. Some of these bans or restrictions cover not just chimpanzees, but all Great Apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos).
For example, the EU revised their original animal welfare policies for laboratory animals (created in 1986) in their 2010 Directive. In this Directive, research on Great Apes is restricted to cases where the research would benefit the preservation of the species in question or for conditions that are life-threatening to humans when no alternatives are available. More details on these respective restrictions and bans can be found on the New England Anti-Vivisection Society’s Project R&R website.
Broadening the Focus to Include All Primates
Internationally, focus has broadened to include a call for bans on experiments on all primates. The ‘zero option’ campaign, which was run by the European Coalition to End Animal Experiments (ECEAE), sought to end all primate experiments, and a resolution on this was passed in 2007 which called for the “ultimate goal of phasing out the use of non-human primates in experiments.” The more recent 2010 EU directive places some restrictions on primate research as well, but there is hope that these restrictions will be tightened and that primate use will eventually be banned in the future.
Currently, the ECEAE is continuing to press for a ban on experiments on primates, as is Humane Research Australia’s Ban Primate Experiments Campaign. And, based on recent trends in animal research in the U.S., it is likely that advocates in the U.S. will need to set their sights on primate research as well.
Use of Primates in Research in the U.S. on the Rise
Data shows that there are still 65,000 monkeys in federally funded laboratories in the U.S. and that this number is likely to be on the rise. While this trend is troublesome, and some have downplayed the NIH victory because of the increasing number of primates in labs, it is important to have some perspective on what the victory means beyond simply a cold calculus of numbers of animals suffering.
The NIH retirement of chimpanzees is a crucial first step to limiting or banning research on other Great Apes and non-human primates. When policy protects one species from animal research, it creates precedent that can be expanded to protect more species in the future, which is hugely important to progress for animal issues. This can be seen from the broader international policy context, where chimpanzees are generally first to be considered when restrictions on animal experiments are deliberated. In some cases, Great Apes are included, and, as can be seen in the EU, protections for primates in research more broadly are slowly being expanded as well.
As animal advocates know already, our work is never finished. It is important for advocates who have worked tirelessly for this day to have their efforts acknowledged, to take a moment to “come up for air” and appreciate the huge positive impact their work has had for the lives of chimpanzees. Then they must rejoin their efforts, assess the lay of the land, set their sights on new targets and begin again.