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Lawsuit seeks to require NIH to relocate Alamogordo chimps

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

About three dozen “surplus” chimpanzees no longer used in biomedical research are still being held at the Alamogordo Primate Facility by the National Institutes of Health, in violation of federal law and previous NIH commitments to retire the chimps to a sanctuary.

Sherill, a 47-year-old chimpanzee, has lived her life in captivity. The NIH has said she would likely not survive a move from the Alamogordo Primate Facility. (Courtesy of Animal Protection Of New Mexico)

That’s according to a lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court in Maryland, where the NIH is based.

Three animal rights groups – Animal Protection of New Mexico, Humane Society of the United States and the Humane Society Legislative Fund, as well as three individuals who previously cared for the chimpanzees at APF – are named as plaintiffs.

Defendants are the NIH and NIH Deputy Director James M. Anderson.

Located on the grounds of Holloman Air Force base, APF is operated by contractor Charles River Laboratories of Massachusetts. A spokeswoman at Holloman said the base is not involved in any of the operations at the primate facility. Sam Jorgensen, associate director of public relations for Charles River, declined to comment and referred all questions to the NIH. Renate Myles, NIH deputy director for public affairs, said Tuesday that the agency “does not comment on pending litigation.”

Laura Bonar, chief program and policy officer for Animal Protection of New Mexico, said the NIH is violating the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection Act, or CHIMP Act, of 2000. The act funded Chimp Haven, a federal chimpanzee sanctuary on 200 forested acres in Keithville, Louisiana.

“The act said when chimps are determined to be surplus and no longer needed in research, they’d be moved to this federal sanctuary,” Bonar said.

In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classified all chimpanzees, those in captivity as well as those in the wild, as endangered. The following year, the NIH reaffirmed its commitment to retire its remaining chimpanzees to the sanctuary, and between 2016 and 2018, the NIH moved 94 of them from the Alamogordo facility to the Louisiana sanctuary.

Subsequently, the NIH said that 44 chimps at the APF were not healthy enough to be moved and were therefore “ineligible” for relocation. Seven of them have died since 2019, Bonar said.

That health assessment, the lawsuit says, was based on “the recommendation of a single veterinarian employed by the contractor operating APF,” which has “a clear financial interest in retaining the surplus chimpanzees because it guarantees a federal revenue stream that covers salaries and facility overhead expenses.”

According to the lawsuit, moving the chimpanzees to the sanctuary is also less expensive for taxpayers. The suit says it costs $35.65 per day to house a chimpanzee at the sanctuary, vs. $130.32 per chimp per day at the Alamogordo Primate Facility.

Furthermore, Bonar said, the CHIMP Act does not specifically give the NIH the right to declare animals as ineligible for transfer to the sanctuary.

The lawsuit charges that the NIH “selectively ignores evidence that transfer is safe and would result in better health and welfare outcomes for these animals.” It notes that 460 chimpanzees, many with serious health issues, have already been successfully moved to Chimp Haven from three NIH research facilities, as well a large number of chimpanzees that had been privately owned.

Many of the remaining chimpanzees at the Alamogordo facility are in their early 30s and early 40s, and because chimpanzees can live to well over 50, some of these “ineligible” animals could spend the next 20 years or more living at the research compound.

Although the lawsuit focuses on the chimpanzees at the Alamogordo Primate Facility, more than 100 additional chimpanzees remain in laboratories supported by the NIH, Bonar said.

“The decision to make some chimpanzees ineligible for relocation to the sanctuary was made by the NIH using the pretense of rational, scientific justification,” Bonar said, ” but when you dig into just a little bit, it doesn’t make any sense.”

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