“Chimpanzees are our closest relatives in the animal kingdom — highly intelligent and sharing 99% of our DNA. These animals should all be treated humanely, especially those retired from medical research — but it seems to me that we’re wasting taxpayer money keeping them locked up under totally inadequate conditions. It’s long past time for NIH and the Alamogordo Primate Facility to stop wasting taxpayer dollars on an insufficient facility for these chimps, rather than sending them to refuge as Congress intended. Enough is enough.”
– Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.
When you go to U.S. Sen. Tom Udall’s website and check out the myriad issues on his front burner, you see a range that starts at agriculture and runs to veterans, with education, immigration, Indian Country, national defense and labs, the pandemic and transportation among the issues in between.
All are important to New Mexico and the nation. But there is one issue that combines ethics and morality with fiscal responsibility and science that our senior senator has championed for a decade. And on Friday, he will be recognized for his work on this issue on behalf of those who have been cruelly mistreated by our government and cannot speak. Once again, he will join the call to finally do right by them.
They are the estimated 39 chimpanzees still in captivity at the Alamogordo Primate Facility. There were 44 chimps at APF last year, but two have been found dead, and three have been euthanized for reasons that appear sketchy at best. Remember, these are the chimps Congress said should go to sanctuary in 2000, that the National Institutes of Health has refused to move based on the opinion of veterinarians whose jobs depend on keeping the chimps in place, that have been hidden from the public at large and officials including Udall in particular who have a right to know how they are being treated on taxpayers’ dimes.
Laura Bonar, a registered nurse and chief program and policy officer for Animal Protection of New Mexico, has spent decades filing public records requests on the chimps. She says the recent deaths of Danny, Ann and Kim “indicate a new rush to euthanize.”
If true, it’s all the more tragic because NIH refused to send these chimps to sanctuary on the rationale the trip might kill them.
How they got here
The United States brought infant chimpanzees to Holloman Air Force Base in the 1950s for tests related to spaceflight. Over the years they were subjected to breeding programs and invasive experiments that have yielded little save for more chimps suffering from HIV and hepatitis, repeated liver biopsies and untreated uterine masses, isolation and depression and nervous disorders and newborn after newborn taken away at birth.
In 2000 Congress passed the CHIMP Act, creating a public-private sanctuary system to provide lifetime care for chimpanzees retired from federal biomedical research programs. NIH announced plans to build Chimp Haven in Louisiana in 2002. And since at least 2010 Udall has been a leading voice among New Mexicans to first stop using N.M.’s chimps for research and then to get them to sanctuary.
“I remain deeply concerned that the criteria being used to justify keeping these chimps at the Alamogordo facility is flawed,” he says. “The independent panel of veterinarians that determined the chimps’ futures were not chimpanzee experts, they did not conduct physical exams, and they relied solely on the information provided by the contractor who has a financial incentive to keep the chimpanzees at APF for the remainder of their lives. There is a clear conflict of interest here.”
Last month, NIH ignored his request to have his staff and a chimp expert visit APF.
What’s happened to them
Montessa, 46 or 47, is one of the chimps NIH refuses to move, saying she could suffer a “fatal cardiac event,” even though her 2019 cardiac evaluation does not support a diagnosis of serious heart disease. Her records incorrectly list her as male and say her “advanced cardiovascular disease … is being medically managed,” though she is not receiving medication. Her records also show she was taken from her family in the wild in 1973-74 and sold for research in 1975. Since then she has endured numerous liver punch biopsies and had at least four babies taken from her.
This kind of sloppiness and treatment is upsetting enough – but add that the NIH website says it costs $130 a day to house one chimp in Alamogordo compared to $35.65 a day at Chimp Haven, and the public is paying more than three times over what it should for humane care.
Montessa’s clinical notes also include that she gets “depressed when separated from Irma.” Chimps are inherently social creatures, and Katherine Cronin, a primatologist and animal welfare scientist at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, reviewed the Alamogordo records available and raises serious concerns about APF’s repeated use of social isolation; the small single-sex social groups; the “sparse and static” cramped, squat living spaces devoid of plants and trees; the lack of an environmental enrichment plan, positive reinforcement training protocol and monitoring records; and the low threshold used to warrant euthanasia. Her takeaway? “The long-term benefits of relocating the chimpanzees would outweigh the short-term costs.”
Udall says, “I have raised concerns directly with NIH about the facilities’ ability to offer appropriate services. We have no reason to believe the Alamogordo facility is providing anywhere near the quality of life offered by sanctuary that these highly intelligent creatures deserve. This facility costs taxpayers more than three times the cost of sanctuary – and we’re certainly not seeing three times the increased quality of care.”
Danny, 37, had his left leg amputated when he was 6 and had been isolated in the “sick room” Nov. 12 for moving slowly and losing interest in food. Cronin writes that isolation can exacerbate depression and low interest in food. APF euthanized Danny a day later.
Where we go from here
In recent years, 94 of the Alamogordo chimps have been moved to sanctuary in Louisiana. NIH answered one of Bonar’s public records requests that it believes the remaining Alamogordo chimp population will live until 2047.
That’s 27 more years, at more than triple the dollar cost of sanctuary and at an exponentially larger cost to our humanity and ethics.
“Chimpanzees with similar medical conditions to those at APF have been moved safely in the past,” Udall says. “NIH should follow the congressional intent of the CHIMP Act and move all remaining chimpanzees to sanctuary. If certain individual chimpanzees are physically too frail to move, then that should be determined in person by NIH veterinarians and sanctuary specialists. If it’s truly not possible to move the chimpanzees to sanctuary, NIH needs to improve the quality of life for the chimpanzees now. There is no reason to wait on this. After decades of invasive research on these unwilling test subjects, the least we can do is ensure the best quality of life for their remaining years. And that’s what I’ll continue to fight for.”
Bonar adds that Chimp Haven is expanding and “planning on taking dozens of chimps. They should be the Alamogordo chimps – especially when you look at their life histories. They deserve it, for once in their lives.”
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to editorial page editor D’Val Westphal at 823-3858 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.