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Senators want chimps moved to sanctuary

Chimpanzees relax in Chimp Haven in Louisiana in 2016. New Mexico’s two U.S. senators want 43 chimps moved to the haven from New Mexico. (Courtesy Chimp Haven)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall of New Mexico want the National Institutes of Health to reconsider a decision to keep more than 40 chimpanzees at a facility at Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo.

The two Democrats and Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., submitted a letter to NIH Director Francis Collins, urging the agency transfer 43 chimpanzees from the Alamogordo Primate Facility on the base to the national sanctuary at Chimp Haven in Keithville, Louisiana. Earlier this year, the NIH announced the chimpanzees would remain at the facility because they were too fragile to travel.

Collins said in October 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.” The evaluation was a review by a team of NIH veterinarians of the lab vets’ findings.

Younger and healthier chimpanzees have already been moved from APF to Chimp Haven, a 200-acre site that offers a forested habitat.

The lawmakers view the decision as a violation of the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection Act, mandating that chimpanzees live their remaining years in a chimpanzee sanctuary.

“With 43 chimpanzees that are deemed surplus, the NIH now has a legal duty under the CHIMP Act to fulfill its commitment to relocate these chimpanzees to the national sanctuary system,” the senators wrote. “There, these chimpanzees may live out the remainder of their lives under the supervision of caretakers with expertise in maximizing their psychological and physical wellbeing – precisely as Congress envisioned.”

The decision last fall also did not sit well with animal advocacy groups. Laura Bonar, a registered nurse and Animal Protection of New Mexico’s chief program and policy officer, told the Journal that a chimpanzee named Danny has been euthanized since that decision was announced in October. According to records, Danny was 37 years old, suffered from cardiac disease and was a left-leg amputee. He was euthanized in November.

“All of the Alamogordo chimpanzees deserve a chance at a better quality of life after long, difficult years in the lab,” she said.

The senators are requesting information about the facility’s ability to meet the complex physical and psychological needs of the chimpanzees remaining in its care, the number of remaining staffers caring for the animals and their job titles, whether or not the chimpanzees have daily access to material to build nests and why the chimpanzees at Alamogordo are held in groups smaller than what was determined to be appropriate under a previous NIH Working Group.

They also want a description of the NIH’s obligation and plan to provide the best possible quality of life for these surviving chimpanzees, and a description of any and all instances in which a chimpanzee has died or has been injured during transport.

“We appreciate continuing to work with you on this matter and appreciate your responsiveness, but want to make abundantly clear our displeasure with the NIH’s decision to not send these chimpanzees to sanctuary,” the senators wrote. “We disagree on the NIH’s interpretation of Congressional action and state unambiguously that these chimpanzees need to be transferred to Chimp Haven before the end of the year.”

During an earlier interview with the Journal, Bonar was critical that the chimpanzees were kept in sex-segregated groups and had limited access to nesting materials. But NIH spokesperson Renate Myles said the NIH has spent millions 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.

Chimpanzees at APF 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.

The chimpanzees endured years of chemical immobilizations, force-feeding and infections, including hepatitis C and HIV, as they underwent testing before NIH’s management, Myles said. She said the Alamogordo facility has been operated only 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.

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