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Use of Chimpanzees in Research

Chimpanzees have been used for decades in biomedical research and testing. Because they share more than 98% of their DNA with humans, they have been considered an “ideal” research subject, one that can be used to stand in for human subjects in experiments that would not be ethical to conduct on humans.

In addition to debunking this myth by scientists who increasingly recognized that the differences between even closely related species are significant,  ethical concerns mounted as growing evidence of chimpanzee intelligence and complex social skills became known. Carl Sagan (1934-1996), the noted American astronomer and astrochemist, asked, “How smart does a chimp have to be before killing him constitutes murder?” The law has been used on multiple fronts to remove chimpanzees from the laboratory. Legislation, regulations and litigation have all been used to try to end the use and abuse of chimpanzees in invasive research. To a large extent, these efforts have finally succeeded in the United States.


In 1997, NAVS spearheaded the effort to introduce the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Management and Protection (CHIMP) Act that was passed in 2000 to establish a national “retirement” sanctuary for chimpanzees no longer needed for research. This sanctuary, established at Chimp Haven near Shreveport, Louisiana, was intended to be a public/private partnership to provide for the care of these chimpanzees.

The idea for creating a national sanctuary was part of a dialogue begun in 1995 between researchers, animal advocates and the government, which undertook an investigation into the long-term care and use of chimpanzees in research. One of the problems identified by this study was the fact that even if chimpanzees were retired from research, there were not adequate facilities to provide for their long-term care.  The best solution was to establish a sanctuary for the purpose of caring for these chimpanzees.

In 2007, the Chimp Haven is Home Act was passed. This law closed a loophole in the CHIMP Act and prohibited chimpanzees retired from biomedical research from being returned to laboratories. Chimp Haven is now home to more than 200 chimpanzees and will be continuing to grow to meet the needs of additional chimpanzees soon to be retired.

In 2013, an amendment was passed to reauthorize funding for Chimp Haven, just as funds authorized for the construction and care of chimpanzees under the original CHIMP Act were exhausted. This came as the National Institutes of Health determined that it must retire more chimpanzees and new funds were needed for construction of housing and for the care of possibly hundreds more animals.

Separate efforts to pass the Great Ape Protection Act (GAPA) and the Great Ape Protection and Cost Saving Act (GAPSCA), to end research on all great apes, did not succeed, but subsequent efforts to remove chimpanzees from research have had significant success, making this legislative solution less urgent.

Challenging the use of chimpanzees at the National Institutes of Health (NIH):

A 2010-11 Institute of Medicine (IOM) investigation and report on the necessity of using chimpanzees for research resulted in NIH announcing an end to most invasive research on chimpanzees by the federal government. The impact of this investigation and report was immediate and continues to have an impact on all federally-funded research using chimpanzees moving forward. Below is a summary of events:

  • Report requested by Senator Tom Udall after NIH decided to transfer 187 chimpanzees from inactive duty at Alamogordo to active research at Texas Biomedical Research facility;
  • Independent report, “Assessing The Necessity Of Chimpanzees In Research” released December 15, 2011;
  • Conclusion: that “while the chimpanzee has been a valuable animal model in the past, most current biomedical research use of chimpanzees is not necessary”;
  • New standards proposed for biomedical research; accepted by NIH;
  • Committee formed to review all research protocols using chimpanzees during Summer 2012;
  • Report issued on January 22, 2013, recommending that:
    • 81 of the 93 chimpanzees used for biomedical research be permanently “designated for retirement to the federal sanctuary system.”
    • Approval of continued use of the remaining chimpanzees is conditioned on changes in housing and care that would provide an “ethologically appropriate physical and social environment” for chimpanzees. These changes must be made within 3-5 years.
    • NIH must review its funding priorities for comparative behavioral, cognitive and genomics studies using chimpanzees to consider projects that can be conducted in nontraditional settings, such as accredited sanctuaries and zoos that comply with the new ethologically appropriate environment.
    • NIH must set up an “Independent Oversight Committee for Using Chimpanzees in NIH-Supported Research” to evaluate any proposed new research on chimpanzees.
  • Necessity of providing a sanctuary to retire chimpanzees hastened approval to reauthorize funding for the national chimpanzee sanctuary, Chimp Haven.
  • NIH Director Francis S. Collins announced on November 16, 2015 that NIH would permanently retire its remaining 50 chimpanzees to sanctuaries

The ultimate impact of the NIH’s actions was to greatly reduce the number of chimpanzees used for invasive research by the federal government and to establish a high threshold before any research can be undertaken in the future.

Changing federal regulations to benefit chimpanzees

In 2011, a petition was filed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) asking them to change their regulations regarding the designation of chimpanzees under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) to “endangered” for all chimpanzees, including those bred in captivity.

The listing for chimpanzees under the ESA was unusual because it had a separate listing for chimpanzees in the wild as “endangered” and a separate listing for chimpanzees born in captivity in the United States as “threatened.” This was a rare split listing of the same species, but it was made even worse by a unique “special exception” that exempted captive chimpanzees from any of the protections of the ESA.

The petition requested that the FWS change this listing to include all chimpanzees as “endangered.”

This new listing would put an end to:

  • Invasive research on chimpanzees;
  • Interstate trade in privately-owned chimpanzees; and
  • Commercial exploitation of chimpanzees (as animal “actors”)

It would also give more credibility to U.S. efforts to protect chimpanzees in the wild.

The FWS, after receiving thousands of comments on this petition including extensive comments from NAVS, issued a proposed rule to change its regulations. In 2015, the FWS finalized its rule, declaring that all chimpanzees are endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Under this new rule, captive chimpanzees with “endangered” status will receive extra protection regarding their import, export and sale, as well as regarding their “taking,” which refers to the harming or killing of chimpanzees. Federal permits will be required for chimpanzee use and will be issued only for scientific purposes or to enhance the propagation or survival of the species. Importantly, under these provisions, the use of chimpanzees in biomedical testing will require a permit from the FWS, not just the approval of the institution conducting the research.

According to FWS Director Dan Ashe, “Extending captive chimpanzees the protections afforded their endangered cousins in the wild will ensure humane treatment and restrict commercial activities under the Endangered Species Act. The decision responds to growing threats to the species and aligns the chimpanzee’s status with existing legal requirements. Meanwhile, we will continue to work with range states to ensure the continued survival and recovery of chimpanzees in the wild.” For full transparency it must also be noted that Ashe stated that some biomedical research with chimps may be allowed to continue if it is critical for understanding human disease. “But the entity would have to make a [monetary] contribution or support conservation of wild chimpanzees.” We will update you as new information develops.

While exceptions still exist for animals kept by zoos, the private ownership of and commercial use of chimpanzees is now restricted to activities within the state where the animals now live. Interstate commerce is prohibited. This new rule will have a long-term effect on the use and abuse of chimpanzees in the United States.

The final rule took effect on September 14, 2015.

Litigation to give legal rights to chimpanzees

In December 2013, attorney Steve Wise filed a series of lawsuits on behalf of the Nonhuman Rights Project, asking judges to recognize that four chimpanzees being held in captivity in New York State are “legal persons” who have the right not to be imprisoned. Instead, they should be released to a sanctuary where they can live as close as possible to what their life would be like in the rainforest.  NAVS was an early supporter of Steve Wise, providing funding for research to develop the theory behind these lawsuits, contained in part in his book “Rattling the Cage.”

The Nonhuman Rights Project is an organization of attorneys and legal experts, supported by international scientists who submitted affidavits showing that chimpanzees are self-aware, cognitively complex and autonomous—that they meet all reasonable standards for having the basic right to bodily liberty. The group’s main focus is to establish legal personhood for nonhuman animals, beginning with chimpanzees.

The lawsuits were filed in three different state courts on behalf of:

  • Tommy, who is living at a used trailer lot;
  • Kiko, who lives in a cage next to a private home; and
  • Hercules and Leo, who were involved in locomotion experiments at Stony Brook University.

Each of the three judges denied the petitions to grant a writ of habeas corpus, which is a legal concept that is used to free prisoners or slaves from their confinement.  However, even though they denied the petition, two of the judges put into the record their support of this action, even if they were not ready to make a decision on behalf of this kind of revolutionary concept for animals. All of these initial denials were appealed.

In July 2015, the New York Supreme Court, appellate division, became the last court to reject the petition for habeas corpus to free Hercules and Leo from their confinement at a laboratory at Stony Brook. However, the school agreed that it would no longer use these chimpanzees for research and was considering sending them to a sanctuary. In August, 2015, a Notice of Appeal was filed in the appellate division of the New York Supreme Court challenging the court’s decision. The owner of these chimpanzees, however, is not the university but the New Iberia Primate Research Center, which refused to enter into negotiations for the permanent retirement of these chimpanzees, even though a reputable U.S. sanctuary offered to care for these chimpanzees at no cost to the owner.

In September 2015, the New York State Court of Appeals (the state’s highest court) denied motions to appeal Tommy’s and Kiko’s case. The final appeal for Hercules and Leo is still pending.

More lawsuits may be planned, using what was learned from the first three cases. This is one more strategy used to remove chimpanzees from the laboratory and other confinement and let them live (relatively) free from exploitation in a sanctuary.

NAVS Takes the Lead in Retiring Chimpanzees from Research Facilities

There have been many strategies and actions used to try to remove chimpanzees from the laboratory and NAVS has been at the forefront of many of these efforts. But a major change came with events leading up to the passage of the CHIMP Act.

1995     NAVS began its involvement with the proposed retirement of chimpanzees from research facilities, testifying before the National Academy of Sciences Committee on the Long-Term Care of Chimpanzees.

1995-6    NAVS worked with other animal advocacy groups to form the National Chimpanzee Research Retirement (NCRR) Task Force, which called for a moratorium on breeding, a ban on euthanasia as a form of population control and the establishment of a sanctuary system for the retirement of chimpanzees no longer used for research.

1997     The federal government acknowledged that retirement was the best option for chimpanzees no longer needed for research, but there were not enough sanctuaries available where they could be retired.

1997     In collaboration with a number of other national animal protection organizations, NAVS spearheaded the effort to introduce the CHIMP Act, with sponsorship of Representative Jim Greenwood (R-PA), and Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Bob Smith (R-NH). NAVS and NAVS supporters successfully lobbied for passage of this Act, with the promise of permanent retirement of chimpanzees once used in but no longer needed for research.

1997-2001   NAVS collected, tallied, edited and disseminated a document on Standards of Care for Chimpanzees in Captivity, a project of the NCRR Task Force, headed by Roger Fouts and with input from researchers, primatologists and sanctuary operators. This was presented to NIH in 2001 and some of these standards were incorporated in the final regulations of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s regulations.

1999     U.S. Air Force’s proposed divestiture of hundreds of chimpanzees from the Holloman Air Force Base, spurred the development of fledgling sanctuaries in the hopes that they could provide the necessary facilities to retire these animals.

2000     President Clinton signed into law the Chimpanzee Health Improvement and Maintenance Protection (CHIMP) Act, which laid the groundwork for the eventual retirement of hundreds of chimpanzees now owned or managed by the federal government—creating a partnership between the federal government and private individuals for the permanent retirement of these special animals.

2001     NAVS submitted extensive comments on the draft version of a Request for Proposals (RFP) from “private nonprofit organizations interested in providing lifetime care for chimpanzees” issued by the NIH.

2002     NAVS and the Humane Society of the U.S. drafted and then presented a definition of “noninvasive behavioral studies” to the Chimpanzee Sanctuary Working Group of the National Advisory Research Resources Council as part of implementation of the CHIMP Act. It was incorporated in the definition of the final contract for the chimpanzee sanctuary (Chimp Haven)

2002     The NIH announced that it awarded the contract to operate a chimpanzee sanctuary and to oversee the lifetime care of chimpanzees to Chimp Haven, Inc., a private, non-profit organization located near Shreveport, Louisiana. Chimp Haven, which was incorporated in 1995 in order to submit a bid to the U.S. Air Force for retirement of chimpanzees at the Holloman Air Force Base, received a large grant from NAVS in order to qualify to receive these animals

2008     The Chimp Haven is Home Act was signed into law on December 26, 2007, to make the retirement of chimpanzees under provisions of the CHIMP Act permanent.

2009     HR 1326, The Great Ape Protection Act, was first introduced by Rep. Edolphus Towns (NY) to phase out all invasive research on great apes and retire these animals permanently to a sanctuary.

2010     The NIH proposed removing 200 chimpanzees from the Alamogordo Primate Facility on Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico and making them available for new research protocols. These former Air Force chimpanzees were kept under a federal contract with Charles River that provides money for their care while prohibiting any research. NAVS called for a public outcry strongly opposing this move.

2011     Senator Tom Udall requested the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to review the need for conducting additional research on these—or any—chimpanzees instead of retiring them to a sanctuary.

2011     The Institute of Medicine (IOM) conducted hearings on the issue of the need for chimpanzees in research; NAVS testified at the hearing.

2011     IOM, in collaboration with the National Research Council published a report, “Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research: Assessing the Necessity” that found that most invasive research done on chimpanzees was unnecessary and recommended that the National Institutes of Health retire those chimpanzees to a sanctuary.

2011     NAVS submits a “We the People” petition on the newly-created WhiteHouse.gov website, asking that the Obama Administration to ban the use of chimpanzees for research.

2012     NIH Working Group submitted its report to NIH with specific recommendations regarding ending research protocols using chimpanzees and retiring the chimpanzees through the national sanctuary system. NAVS provided written testimony prior to issuance of the final report.

2012     Petition filed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list all chimpanzees as “endangered” on the Endangered Species List. NAVS submits extensive comments in support of this petition.

2013     NIH accepted its Working Group recommendations and began implementation of requirements for the physical and social environment required for captive chimpanzees.

2015     U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service amend the Endangered Species Act to list all chimpanzees as “endangered.”