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Grant helps move lab chimps to forever home

After decades of being subjected to invasive testing in New Mexico, 19 chimpanzees will finally ease into retirement at a forested sanctuary in Louisiana, thanks to a major grant from New Mexico donors.

New Mexico Community Foundation’s Chimpanzee Sanctuary Fund – a project of Animal Protection of New Mexico and The Humane Society of the United States – is granting Chimp Haven $85,500 to take in and care for chimpanzees, likely including Rosie, Theo, Opal and others.

The chimpanzees endured long years of chemical immobilizations, force-feeding and infections, including hepatitis C and HIV, as they underwent testing at an Alamogordo research facility. Later they were transferred to a San Antonio, Texas, lab. This spring, finally, they are headed to their forever home.

“Isn’t that exciting?” Laura Bonar, program director of Animal Protection New Mexico, told me. “As you know, New Mexicans have done so much to protect chimps here and all across the country.”

New Mexico in the 1990s possessed the largest captive colony of research chimps, Bonar said.

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A domino of decisions over the past two years has finally brought peace of mind to the advocates who worked so hard to end chimpanzee testing.

The Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences, found in a landmark 2011 review of government-funded research on chimpanzees that new research tools had made testing on chimpanzees unnecessary for human health. Then-U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman and Sen. Tom Udall, both Democrats, as well as former Gov. Bill Richardson, all lobbied for the independent review.

“That was the big domino that pushed all these other dominos,” Bonar said.

Then the National Institutes of Health decided in 2013 to reduce the number of chimpanzees retained for research to 50, with the caveat that research projects would have to meet stringent criteria for care of the primates.

Chimp Haven in Louisiana is home to 193 chimpanzees, with room for 50 more. The sanctuary is also planning to expand to accommodate more of the now-retired lab chimps. The 200-acre site includes three multiacre wooded habitats. (Courtesy of Chimp Haven)

Chimp Haven in Louisiana is home to 193 chimpanzees, with room for 50 more. The sanctuary is also planning to expand to accommodate more of the now-retired lab chimps. The 200-acre site includes three multiacre wooded habitats. (Courtesy of Chimp Haven)

In June 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated captive chimpanzees as endangered, forcing researchers to seek a permit from that agency to conduct any tests. No permits were sought over the next five months, and in November, NIH Director Francis Collins said the government would no longer maintain a colony of chimpanzees for research.

Government-sponsored chimp testing was over.

It costs about $20,000 a year to care for a chimp in sanctuary, said Cathy Willis Spraetz, president and chief executive of Chimp Haven in Louisiana. The federal government pays 75 percent of the cost, and the sanctuary must raise the remaining 25 percent.

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The $85,500 grant covers that 25 percent share for 19 chimpanzees for one year.

“We are certainly grateful to the New Mexico Community Foundation for the support of the chimpanzee sanctuary care grant,” Spraetz said. “The biggest concern, the thing that keeps me up at night, is how am I going to raise enough money for all these hungry mouths to feed? It gives me peace of mind that at least in this interim period, we have it covered.”

The Chimpanzee Sanctuary Fund has raised more than half a million dollars, Bonar said – money that will be directed to move additional chimpanzees to sanctuary and pay for their care.

About 700 government- and privately owned chimpanzees remain in laboratory settings nationwide, she said, including 149 at the Alamogordo Primate Facility. Although tests are no longer conducted on chimpanzees at any of the labs, the goal is to see all of the chimps moved to sanctuaries.

Chimp Haven already hosts 193 chimpanzees, with room for 50 more. The haven encompasses 200 acres that include three multiacre wooded habitats, Spraetz said. The sanctuary is also planning to expand to accommodate more of the now-retired lab chimps.

Although veterinary and behavioral science teams coordinate closely with sending institutions to ensure the best care for individual chimps based on their medical record, Spraetz said that once they are integrated into the sanctuary, “We try really hard to not focus on their past. This is a new beginning at the haven.”

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Lauren Villagran in Las Cruces at lvillagran@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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