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Research Chimps Get Retirement

21 December 2000 7:00 pm
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Pension plan. The new law makes it difficult to reenlist retired chimps for further studies.

President Clinton signed into law yesterday a retirement plan for chimpanzees who have helped to further medical science. The Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection (CHIMP) Act authorizes the Department of Health and Human Services to spend $30 million to set up and administer a system of retirement sanctuaries for lab chimpanzees. But the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which claims the law would make valuable animals unavailable to researchers, persuaded Clinton to criticize parts of the measure.

In the early 1980s, NIH launched a breeding program to satisfy an expected growth in demand for chimpanzees in HIV trials. But that demand never materialized once researchers discovered that most chimps do not get sick from HIV. U.S. biomedical research facilities currently care for approximately 1600 chimpanzees, which can live up to 50 years. In 1997, the National Academy of Sciences recommended that the government set up a system of sanctuaries to house unneeded animals more cheaply than at research facilities.

The measure represents an unhappy compromise for NIH officials and many animal welfare activists. Although activists sought "permanent retirement" for the chimps, the legislation allows research on retired chimps in "special circumstances," after approval by the sanctuary's board of directors and a 60-day public-comment period. "I don't think that's any kind of protection at all," says Eric Kleiman, a spokesperson for In Defense of Animals, an animal rights group in Mill Valley, California. But Chris Heyde of the Society for Animal Protective Legislation, a Washington, D.C., group that lobbied for the bill, says it would be difficult for researchers to bring the animals out of retirement. "We were able to sit down and put hurdles in the way," he says.

That's what worries NIH, which wanted the chimps easily available for future research on new pathogens or new vaccines. "Even though theoretically animals could be removed ... there are too many provisos," says Judith Vadukaidis, director of the National Center for Research Resources at NIH, which oversees federally funded primate research centers. Although the White House didn't want to veto the bill, it did issue a statement yesterday highlighting NIH concerns, and requesting that the new Congress and the new Administration amend the law.

Related sites
PDF-version of the CHIMP bill
Statement of the President on signing the CHIMP bill

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