By Justin Goodman
Last month, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced that it would retire all federally owned chimpanzees from laboratories to sanctuaries, a move that came after decades of campaigning by PETA and other animal advocates. While this is welcome and long overdue news, the fight for chimpanzee freedom isn’t quite over yet.
Chimpanzees have been tormented in experiments since the early 1950s, when the U.S. Air Force captured dozens of young chimpanzees in Africa and brought them back to the States for use in violent crash tests that broke their necks, burned their skin off, caused traumatic brain injuries and killed many.
But the plight of chimpanzees in laboratories was not catapulted into the public consciousness until 1986, when a group of animal liberationists broke into the NIH-funded SEMA laboratory (now BIOQUAL) in Rockville, Maryland, and documented the miserable living conditions of nearly 700 chimpanzees and other primates who were infected with illnesses including HIV (even though we’ve known since then that chimpanzees do not get sick from HIV and never develop AIDS), locked alone inside cages too small for them to stand or lie down properly and imprisoned in the building’s basement, where they suffered in loneliness and pain. What activists found at SEMA jump-started efforts to free chimpanzees from laboratories.
Dr. Jane Goodall described a subsequent visit to SEMA as “the worst experience of my life.” Over the next three decades, Dr. Goodall, PETA and other animal-protection groups campaigned vigorously to get approximately 1,000 chimpanzees out of laboratories (including BIOQUAL), organizing demonstrations, filing countless federal complaints, lobbying members of Congress, filing shareholder resolutions, criticizing the ineffectiveness of experiments on great apes and more.
A breakthrough came in 2011, when a landmark Institute of Medicine (IOM) report commissioned by the NIH at the behest of Congress concluded that experiments on chimpanzees — including those taking place at the time in which baby chimpanzees were infected with norovirus or hepatitis — are “unnecessary,” something that PETA and others had testified to during the IOM hearings and had been saying for decades.
As a result, the NIH suspended funding for new experiments on chimpanzees while it considered its next steps.
In 2013, NIH announced that it was cutting funding for virtually all experiments on chimpanzees and retiring 310 of the 360 chimpanzees it owned to sanctuaries.
The remaining 50 were allegedly being kept for some hypothetical, unknown future use, an ill-advised decision criticized by PETA and others.
Then, in September of this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expanded “endangered” status to chimpanzees in laboratories, effectively banning invasive experiments on these highly endangered animals and ruling out NIH’s plan to potentially use chimpanzees again in the future.
This and NIH’s determination that there is a “complete absence of interest” in such experiments provided the impetus behind last week’s announcement that all the chimpanzees held by the agency would be retired to sanctuaries.
However, despite NIH’s pledges dating back to 2013, few chimpanzees have actually been transferred from laboratories to sanctuaries and many have died while waiting.
Some of these chimpanzees are just a few years old, while others have been imprisoned in laboratories for half a century. They all now have a chance to experience the peace and freedom of a sanctuary. NIH needs to act quickly to fulfill its promise before any more chimpanzees die waiting for the freedom that they’ve been promised.
Members of Congress who’ve been advocating for retiring the chimpanzee since the 1990s recognize the urgency of the situation, too. Right after the NIH announcement, representatives Sam Farr and Lucille Roybal-Allard wrote to NIH Director Francis S. Collins requesting that he immediately make financial arrangements for the promised retirements and provide specific details about NIH’s timeline and strategy for transferring all federally owned chimpanzees from laboratories to sanctuaries.
As Jane Goodall has said, “If we do not do something to help these creatures, we make a mockery of the whole concept of justice.”