Feds Declare Captive Chimps Endangered

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week declared all captive chimpanzees "endangered," restricting their use in biomedical research, granting the chimps at San Antonio's Southwest National Primate Research Center more protection.

The Center is one of a handful of federal research facilities housing chimps — it has "more than 129," according to the website — and the endangered declaration has no current impact on them, since there's no ongoing chimp research there, according to a spokeswoman.

Captive chimps were previously listed as "threatened," and the new classification is a response "to growing threats to the species," according to a Fish and Wildllife press release. 

Under the new designation, permits for scientific research will only be issued to "purposes that benefit the species in the wild, or to enhance the propagation or survival of chimpanzees, including habitat restoration," the release states.

John Pippin, the Dallas-based director of academic affairs for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which opposes animal testing, praised the decision in a statement on the Committee's site, saying, "Protection under the Endangered Species Act is long overdue for chimpanzees in laboratories. The new status is a tremendous change that ends the unprotected current status of captive chimpanzees."

The endangered designation is the latest chapter in a phasing-out of research chimps. The Institute of Medicine issued a report in 2011 stating that "most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary." But by that time, more than 200 lab chimps living out their twilight years at a U.S Air Force Base in Alamagordo, New Mexico were called out of retirement and scheduled for transfer to the Southwest National Primate Research Center.

When The Houston Press first wrote about this controversy in 2012, 14 of the chimps had already been transferred; a year later, the National Institutes of Health retired 310 of its chimps.

But scientists at the Southwest National Primate Research Center maintain that chimpanzee testing (as well as other primate testing) has proved beneficial. Southwest Spokeswoman Lisa Cruz told us in an email that "Animal research has saved lives, extended life expectancy, and improved the quality of life for both humans and animals by enabling scientists to conduct critical experiments that identified ways to prevent, treat, and cure disease. Chimpanzees have played a vital role in advancing human health, including critical research with chimpanzees here at [Southwest] in the development of a hepatitis B vaccine and recent breakthroughs in the cure of hepatitis C virus infection."

Pippin, of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, disagreed in his statement:  “Chimpanzees have repeatedly proven to be poor models for many areas of human disease research, such as HIV, malaria and other infectious diseases, neuroscience research, and cancer. The new protections for chimpanzees should cause the National Institutes of Health—the country’s largest funder of basic research—to close the door on a dark chapter of its history and expand its investment in non-animal research methods."

The Alamagordo chimps transferred to Southwest had  certainly contributed a lot to science. Take Katrina, a 33-year-old chimp who, we wrote in 2012

did most of her time in a private lab in Tuxedo, New York. She has been sedated or anesthetized at least 295 times, endured 36 liver biopsies, four rectal biopsies, three lymph node biopsies and a cervical biopsy. In 1994, after coming out of a ketamine daze, she mutilated her thumb. Between June 2001 and March 2002 (when she was retired), she lost 38.5 pounds — one-third of her body weight.

And we would also be remiss to overlook Ken, who was first used in biomedical research 12 hours after his birth in 1982, when his blood drawn.  

Over the next three years, he was studied at Centers for Disease Control labs in Phoenix and Atlanta. He was infected with hepatitis C from a serum derived from infected chimps and with hepatitis A from human feces. He was infected with HIV in 1993.

Ken was retired from medical research in 1996 after undergoing a total of 77 anesthetizations for serial blood sampling and biopsies. In retirement, he remained at the Air Force base in what is known as the Alamogordo Primate Facility. During a routine health exam on Ken in 2005, vets discovered a protein deficiency in his blood that they believe later led to his swollen scrotum and abdomen.

We hope that, if the feds issue any research permits, it really will be worth it. These animals have already been through a lot. 

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