It has been a season of good news for wild animals in captivity. I recently posted an article about SeaWorld’s announcement that it will be ending (some of) its killer whale shows. While this big announcement amounted to no more than media spin to deflect the public outcry raised by the film Blackfish, it does look like SeaWorld is eventually going to have to bow to pressure and end its captive orca programs entirely.
Now, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which has long been the government body tasked with approving research projects using chimpanzee test subjects, has announced that it will no longer be keeping a supply of captive chimps for this purpose. It will also continue to phase out all the chimp research funding it has, in the past, provided to outside facilities.
Since 2013, the NIH has been in the process of reducing researcher reliance on chimps. Most of its 360 captive chimps were to be retired, with a group of 50 to be kept in case they were needed for future research. Now, in a document leaked by an NIH employee, the head of the agency has stated that these last 50 chimps would be retired, as well.
Last June, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service listed captive chimps under the Endangered Species Act, making it that much harder for the NIH to approve them for research uses. In addition, any researcher wanting to use chimps would have had to show that the planned research would in some way benefit wild chimps. These strict conditions were apparently enough to deter new chimp-based research, because no new applications for chimpanzee projects were received after the status change went into effect.
Some who would like to have access to captive chimps for use in studies to benefit wild chimps and other primates may be disappointed by this news. Chimp research has already been outlawed in many places. So, overseas researchers who, for example, wish to test ebola vaccines meant for wild chimps on their captive cousins may have trouble finding test subjects. The NIH’s director, however, believes that other species of primates still available to researchers can serve as suitable test subjects for these types of vaccine trials.
The NIH is in the process of preparing a retirement plan for its captive chimps as well as those in other facilities it has been funding.