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NIH to retire research chimps to sanctuary in Louisiana

Chimps use sticks to poke into a mock termite mound to taste a sweet substance placed in the mound by keepers at Chimp Haven in Keithville, La., Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013. One hundred and eleven chimpanzees will be coming from a south Louisiana laboratory to Chimp Haven, the national sanctuary for chimpanzees retired from federal research. (AP Photo/Janet McConnaughey)

Chimps use sticks to poke into a mock termite mound to taste a sweet substance placed in the mound by keepers at Chimp Haven in Keithville, La. One hundred and eleven chimpanzees will be coming from a south Louisiana laboratory to Chimp Haven. (AP Photo/Janet McConnaughey)

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

The National Institutes of Health said Wednesday it plans to retire the last colony of government-owned chimpanzees being held for biomedical research, a decision hailed by animal advocates who fought successfully to close a research center in New Mexico that once housed hundreds of the primates.

The NIH announcement is “such exciting news for all the New Mexicans who have worked so hard to save those chimps,” said Laura Bonar, program director of Animal Protection New Mexico. “It’s time to get the survivors to sanctuary.”

The decision initially affects at least 50 chimpanzees, including 20 at a San Antonio, Texas, lab that were used in decades of invasive testing at an Alamogordo research facility.

In a Nov. 16 internal email obtained by the

Journal, NIH Director Francis Collins said, “In my view, it is time to acknowledge that there is no further justification for the 50 chimpanzees to continue to be kept available for invasive biomedical research.” The NIH confirmed the directive Wednesday in a news release.

The NIH in 2013 announced it would retire about 300 government-owned chimpanzees used for research but retained another 50 primates for potential biomedical research. Those are the animals now scheduled for permanent retirement.

The chimpanzees held for research at the San Antonio lab are the priority to move to sanctuary, according to the NIH directive. Advocates say the San Antonio lab, known as the Texas Biomedical Research Institute or Southwest National Primate Research Center, has a history of Animal Welfare Act violations.

“The more you learn about chimpanzees, the more time you spend with them, it’s a lot like looking in the mirror,” Bonar said. “They are very similar to us emotionally. They experience pain, fear and anxiety.”

The chimpanzees likely short-listed for retirement include Rosie, Theo and Opal, who advocates say have suffered immeasurably from invasive tests. According to the Humane Society of the United States and Animal Protection of New Mexico, which obtained the chimps’ medical records:

• Rosie, who was born in a laboratory in 1981, has been anesthetized or chemically immobilized 99 times and has had 15 liver biopsies. For years, she was given a sedative medication that caused her to have seizures. She is a carrier of hepatitis C.

• Theo, born in a laboratory in 1991, has been force-fed to maintain weight, and has a history of seizures, screaming, crying and self-mutilation. A hepatitis C carrier, he has had at least 357 blood draws.

• Opal, born in captivity in 1980, has survived at least 19 liver biopsies and 219 chemical immobilizations. She has hepatitis B and a history of pulling her hair out and eating it, a behavior that advocates say is likely associated with stress and anxiety.

Since 2013, NIH has fielded just one request to use the chimpanzees for research, and that request was withdrawn, Collins said in the email.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this summer listed all captive chimpanzees as endangered, making it illegal to engage them in certain activities without a permit.

“We are overjoyed by the decision,” said Kathleen Conlee, Humane Society vice president for animal research issues. “We are going to roll up our sleeves and work with NIH and get these chimpanzees moved, once and for all.”

John Pippin, a medical doctor and director of academic affairs for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, called the NIH decision “scientifically sound and ethically correct.”

He said there is not “a single area of disease research for which chimpanzees are essential.”

A 2011 report from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies concluded that although for many years chimpanzee research helped advance scientific knowledge and develop drugs to treat debilitating diseases, “recent advances in alternate research tools, including cell-based technologies and other animal models, have rendered chimpanzees largely unnecessary as research subjects.”

The retired chimpanzees are expected to go to Chimp Haven, a 200-acre forested reserve in Keithville, La., that is already home to 300 rescued chimpanzees.