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NIH: Aging chimps to stay in NM

A chimpanzee explores high in a tree at Chimp Haven in Louisiana. (Courtesy of Chimp Haven)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The National Institutes of Health said 44 aging chimpanzees are too fragile to be moved from the Alamogordo Primate Facility to a sanctuary in Louisiana.

Instead, they will spend the rest of their lives at the facility in southeastern New Mexico, the NIH announced Thursday.

It’s a decision that isn’t sitting well with some animal rights advocates.

“These chimpanzees deserve a better quality of life in a sanctuary,” Laura Bonar, a registered nurse and Animal Protection of New Mexico’s chief program and policy officer, told the Journal. She pointed to the decades the animals were subjected to tests in biomedical research, a practice NIH said ended in 2015.

“It’s our collective responsibility to speak out about this,” Bonar said.

The chimpanzees endured years of chemical immobilizations, force-feeding and infections, including hepatitis C and HIV, as they underwent testing at the Alamogordo research center prior to NIH’s management of the facility.

NIH spokesperson Renate Myles said the Alamogordo facility has only been operated as a research reserve with no biomedical research conducted since 2001, when the NIH took ownership of the Coulston Foundation-owned chimpanzees and moved them to the facility. The Coulston Foundation chimpanzees had been housed in a private laboratory.

NIH Director Francis Collins said in a news release that the remaining chimps at the facility were evaluated by a panel of NIH veterinarians and that it was determined “it would be a serious risk to the chimpanzees’ health to move them.”

Younger and healthier chimpanzees have already been transported from the Alamogordo Primate Facility, the Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research in Bastrop, Texas, and the Southwest National Primate Center in San Antonio, Texas, to Chimp Haven, the federal sanctuary in Keithville, Louisiana. Collins said the NIH will continue to relocate chimpanzees to the sanctuary from the other two facilities.

“However, we anticipate that some chimpanzees at these two locations also will need to remain in place for health reasons,” he said.

As chimps age, they can develop serious chronic conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes, the NIH said. About half of the NIH chimpanzees are considered geriatric.

Chimpanzees at the Alamogordo Primate Facility have indoor-outdoor living conditions in structures called Primadomes that allow them to climb and swing, Collins said.

“They have strong dependency on their social groups as well as close bonds with their caretakers, from whom they receive excellent care,” he said.

Bonar said she isn’t being critical of those in charge of the care of the chimpanzees at the Alamogordo facility but points out that it was designed when chimpanzees were moved from West Africa to Alamogordo in the 1950s for medical research.

She was also critical of the fact the chimpanzees were kept in sex-segregated groups and had limited access to nesting materials.

But Myles said NIH has spent millions of dollars to upgrade the facilities since it took over management at APF in 2001. Myles also said the chimpanzees at APF have ready access to nesting materials.

Bonar said Chimp Haven offered the animals a chance to live in a forested habitat. Chimp Haven is a 200-acre site.

She said New Mexico residents would prefer they live out their last days “in a home-like setting” rather than “a prison-like setting,” and that should be the case with chimpanzees.

Bonar said the chimps in Alamogordo, such as 36-year-old Faylene, “deserve a chance at a better quality of life.”

“Faylene was born in the lab on Dec. 2, 1982,” she said. “Her life, in many ways, was a life filled with torture.”

She would like Faylene and the other chimpanzees examined by chimpanzee experts who could weigh the risks of moving them to Chimp Haven against the benefits.

Bonar also said the cost to taxpayers is much higher to keep them at the Alamogordo Primate Facility than to relocate them to Chimp Haven.Myles agrees the cost of care is less expensive at Chimp Haven, but said the NIH is putting the welfare of the animals ahead of cost.

NIH pays for the cost of care of the chimpanzees at all of the primate facilities that house NIH chimpanzees, including the federal sanctuary, Myles said.

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