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20 NM chimps stuck in a Texas lab must be freed

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced June 12 in a press conference with renowned primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall that captive chimpanzees will be listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act, providing an additional level of protection to hundreds of chimpanzees still held in U.S. laboratories.

But even in the face of this groundbreaking victory for animal protection, there are still New Mexican chimps like Rosie and Elijah held at Texas Biomedical Research Institute, the lab whose former director said chimps were equal to “books in the library.” Some of these chimps with especially horrifying research histories, like Ken, have died waiting in this lab. Despite the huge changes our federal government has made, more must be done.

New Mexicans have a unique history with chimpanzees.

In the 1950s, the U.S. Air Force brought infant chimpanzees here from West Africa for Project Mercury, part of our race to space.

In the 1990s, New Mexico held the largest colony of captive chimpanzees in the world at The Coulston Foundation, a private laboratory that profited off chimps by using and leasing them for experimentation until outrage over gross violations of the Animal Welfare Act and sanctions over sloppy work forced the lab’s closure. Their 600 chimps were split into two groups: one group was held by the National Institutes of Health at the Alamogordo Primate Facility on Holloman Air Force Base and another was donated to the sanctuary Save the Chimps.

No invasive research on chimpanzees has taken place in New Mexico since 2001 and, over the past five years, the public, the Albuquerque Journal and dozens of elected leaders have rallied to protect the remaining chimps on Holloman, effectively speaking out against the NIH’s wasteful plan to ship all New Mexican chimps to the Texas lab for use in further cruel and pointless research.

However, the NIH did move a small group of New Mexico chimps to Texas in 2010 before announcing their plan publicly – that group included Rosie and Elijah.

In recent years, public outcry pressed for fundamental change, leading to an independent scientific study by the Institute of Medicine finding that “… most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary.”

Since 2011, the NIH has not spent any tax dollars on any new invasive research projects using chimps and has adopted a rigorous set of criteria to be met before government-supported research on chimps can proceed.

Now, the Fish and Wildlife Service takes an additional important step. Any activity that can harm a captive chimp in the United States, even privately funded research, will require a special permit and must benefit wild chimp populations. This will obstruct needless biomedical research and deter interstate trading of chimpanzees in the pet and entertainment industries that are harmful to wild chimps.

Support for the Fish and Wildlife decision to protect captive chimpanzees is rightly broad and far-reaching. The agency deserves all the adulation and thanks given in the press and on social media in recent days.

But what’s missing from this latest round of good news is what must come next: more chimps experiencing peace and dignity in sanctuary. It’s time for Rosie, Elijah and all of the 20 New Mexican chimps still held at Texas Biomedical Research Institute to go to sanctuary. The NIH can make this happen.

While we celebrate the Fish and Wildlife Service’s step forward, let’s press to make sure that changes on paper turn into real changes in living conditions for our surviving chimps.

When more chimps get into sanctuary, they have a chance to experience life as a chimpanzee rather than as an invasive test subject, and scientists can better focus on humane and effective research. We will know we did the right thing.

Twenty New Mexican chimps stuck in a Texas lab have more than earned their chance.

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