WASHINGTON, D.C.--In a move that has dismayed primatologists and animal rights activists, the U.S. Air Force announced today that it would hand over most of its chimpanzee colony to a research organization rather than retire the chimps. The chimp colony, which includes more than 140 animals, was used for research ranging from the effects of heat and acceleration to hepatitis and HIV. More than 90 of the chimps are infected with either HIV or hepatitis.
Although the Air Force discontinued its own research on the chimps in the 1970s, it has since allowed the private Coulston Foundation, the new custodian of 111 of the chimps, to conduct experiments on the animals. The foundation plans to continue studying the effects of aging and HIV on the chimps, now housed at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The other 30 chimps, which are not infected, will be turned over to Primarily Primates, a retirement sanctuary in Texas.
In determining who should win custody of the chimps, the Air Force says it considered factors such as financial resources and past experience in dealing with the animals. But "the Air Force had no preference as to whether the animals were retired or used for further research," says Colonel Jack Blackhurst, the associate deputy assistant secretary for science, technology, and engineering.
The decision has angered some chimpanzee experts. Twice, they note, the Coulston Foundation has been cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for violating the Animal Welfare Act and causing chimp deaths. The first incident, an overheating accident in 1993 that killed three animals, resulted in a fine and renovation of the Coulston facilities; the second remains under investigation, says Ed Curlette, a USDA public affairs spokesperson.
That record should have set off "alarm bells," says Roger Fouts, co-director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University in Ellensburg. It's time, says Fouts, to "start treating [chimpanzees] as fellow beings rather than furry test tubes." The Coulston Foundation responds that it treats its wards with care and dignity. "We take our chimp care very, very seriously," says Coulston spokesperson Don McKinney.