Hooray — 20 Chimps Locked up in San Antonio Will (Finally) Be Retired to a Sanctuary!

Fifty federally owned chimpanzees warehoused in research facilities — including 20 in San Antonio — are being retired to a Louisiana sanctuary, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

This freaking rules. And it's long overdue. 

The National Institutes of Health had already retired the majority of its chimps, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had declared captive chimpanzees endangered, all but ending chimp research altogether. But sweeping changes in how the government views chimp research didn't help the 20 chimps still in service at the Southwest National Primate Research Center.

That includes chimps like 34-year-old Opal, who's endured 19 liver biopsies and 219 chemical immobilizations, and who was infected with hepatitis B. But now Opal and 19 others at Southwest will trade their enclosures for the wide open spaces of Chimp Haven, in Keithville, Louisiana. 

Nature reports that NIH director Francis Collins announced the decision in a November 16 email to agency administrators, stating, "It is time to acknowledge that there is no further justification for the 50 chimpanzees to continue to be kept available for invasive biomedical research." 

On his blog, HSUS President and CEO Wayne Pacelle wrote, "Moving these chimpanzees to sanctuary is not only the right thing to do, but it will also save taxpayer dollars due to the lower cost of care." He also noted that "it's rare to close out a category of animal use so emphatically. That's exactly what's happening here, and it's thrilling." 

Kathleen Conlee, HSUS' vice president of animal research issues, told The Houston Press via email that the group gave props to the "NIH and its leaders, for all their thoughtfulness in making this decision."

The HSUS is one of many animal welfare organizations that has fought to end chimp research, and to allow retired chimps to at least spend their twilight years somewhere that doesn't resemble a prison. The group has also done a great job shining light on problems at Southwest National Primate Research Center, including a 2014 undercover investigation that revealed potential violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

These 50 chimps also had a tremendous ally in the folks at Animal Protection of New Mexico, not least of all Program Director Laura Bonar.

The 20 San Antonio chimps had previously been kept at the Alamogordo Primate Facility in New Mexico, where they were among more than 200 chimps who were called out of retirement.  

Bonar told The Press that the NIH's decision was a milestone for "people who care about cruelty and suffering in the world."

"When you see something that has been bad and grim for many years turn around, it's very powerful," she said. adding that "you really have to give a lot of credit to [NIH], to say, 'We're not going to keep doing things the way we've always done them. We're going to change.' That's an awesome, awesome moment." 

Surprisingly, not all researchers shared this sentiment. Nature reported that University of Wisconsin developmental psychobiologist Allyson Bennett "questions the decision to move [the chimps] from research facilities to sanctuaries, which are not subject to the same strict oversight and welfare standards that govern NIH-supported centers. She adds that moving the animals to new facilities may create more stress for them."

We've said it before, and we'll say it again: The folks under "strict oversight" at Southwest National Research Center once began a necropsy on a baboon while it was still alive. Somehow, we think it's less likely that this will happen at Chimp Haven. (Southwest, which in 2011 secured a $19 million NIH contract, was fined $6,094 for its living necropsy blunder. If that ain't strict, what is?)

And, as for stress, it's not like the Southwest chimps are expressing a real joi de vivre in their current digs. Opal, for example, has a history of "plucking out her hair and eating it, a behavior associated with stress and trauma," according to the HSUS. 

We think Opal and her 19 peers will be less likely to pluck out their hair when they're not cooped in cages. It's a shame that this decision came too late for two other Southwest chimps —  Ken and Katrina, who were 32 and 30 when we wrote about them in 2012. They're now believed to be dead (they weren't listed in Southwest's most recent inventory of government chimps). 

As we wrote in July:

Katrina spent most of her time in a New York laboratory, where she endured biopsies of her liver, rectum, lymph nodes, and cervix. In 1994, after coming out of a ketamine daze, she mutilated her thumb. Between June 2001 and March 2002, when she was first retired, she lost one-third of her body weight.

Ken underwent serial blood sampling from the time he was 12 hours old until his first retirement in 1996. He put in time at the Centers for Disease Control, where he was infected with hepatitis A from human feces, and with HIV. By the time he was called out of retirement in 2010, his health had deteriorated to the point where veterinarians inserted a "do not resuscitate" order into his medical file. 
Unlike them, it looks like the Southwest 20 will get to live the rest of their lives in peace. We feel like peeling some champagne and uncorking a banana. Or maybe it's the other way around — we're so excited, we can barely keep it together. 
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Contributor Craig Malisow covers crooks, quacks, animal abusers, elected officials, and other assorted people for the Houston Press.
Contact: Craig Malisow