The most recent wave of government research chimpanzees was released from The New Iberia Research Center last week. The Louisiana lab has been working with the Chimp Haven Sanctuary since 2012 in coordinating the retirement of the 110 chimps. In 2011, President Obama signed a bill into law which called for almost 90 percent of chimpanzees to be released from government-owned research facilities to sanctuaries, and labs and organizations are now working to implement the law.
The Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection Act signed by the President in late 2011 came after the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released a report stating that most of the chimps were no longer used in biomedical research. Thus, most of the animals were sitting in the lab not serving any scientific purpose. A federal sanctuary system established in 2002, which already cares for 150 retired research chimpanzees, would make this mass retirement possible, the report said. Chimp Haven is one of the largest sanctuaries in the federal system, and has taken custody of most of the chimps since the law was enacted.
The first chimpanzees to be released under the government mandate came from a New Mexico research facility and were used in HIV research. In September 2011, a video was released of the chimps taking their first steps outside at their new home at a sanctuary in Austria. Chimp Haven received its first group of retired chimps in March of 2013 from New Iberia Research, after the NIH determined that its chimps should be among the retired in November of 2012. The Humane Society released a similar video of the retired research animals seeing the outdoors for the first time. Few knew about the law at the time, but the Chimp Haven release video in 2013 quickly went viral.
Public awareness of the plight of the research chimpanzee ballooned after the release of the 2013 video, as did pressure on the testing facilities to release the chimps. Coordination of research animals on a mass scale such as this, however, is a slow process due to the complexity of caring for a research chimpanzee. The animals have special physical and psychological needs. The receiving sanctuary also needs to study the chimps to ensure that they will adapt well to their new surroundings and social groups. The NIH, Chimp Haven, and Project R&R, who partially funded the project, worked carefully with New Iberia Labs to ensure a smooth transition for the remaining chimps.
The 200 acre sanctuary also needed to raise about $4 million on top of the funding it received from Project R&R (Release and Restitution of Chimpanzees). This money was needed in order to build proper chimpanzee housing structures and play areas for the remaining . The Humane Society of the United States, along with two antivivisection organizations, helped with funding, and private donors Bob Barker and Anita Hirsch donated $1 million each to complete the project.
On July 2, with the new areas built and future funding secured, the last of the 110 chimpanzees at New Iberia Research Facility arrived at Chimp Haven sanctuary. Project R&R believes that there are still about 650 chimpanzees held in government testing and holding facilities. In its plan the NIH will retain about 50 research chimps in a new federal facility, which it says will be designed to look more like Chimp Haven and less like a laboratory. The NIH has estimated that the release of the remaining chimpanzees from government research labs and the building of the new facility will take about 10 years to complete.
By Layla Klamt