WASHINGTON — Sen. Bill Cassidy is trying to help hundreds of chimpanzees enjoy an easy retirement in his home state of Louisiana.
The Republican is pushing for an amendment to a major appropriations bill winding its way through Congress this week that would force the National Institutes of Health to make good on a 2015 promise to move all its chimps out of research facilities.
Three years ago, NIH Director Francis Collins pledged to transfer the chimpanzees it owns or supports from laboratories to sanctuaries “as space is available and on a timescale that will allow for optimal transition.” But in a May report, the agency said 272 chimpanzees are still living in research facilities. NIH has suggested it could finish the transition by 2026.
Cassidy, along with co-sponsor Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), wants it to move faster. Their amendment would cut off funding for those labs unless the NIH comes up with a plan to retire all the chimps by the end of 2021. Senate leaders will ultimately determine whether or not the amendment gets a vote later this week.
If Cassidy is successful, the chimps will likely head to retirement at Chimp Haven, a 200-acre plot of land in the northwest corner of Louisiana. According to its website, the federally funded facility provides the primates with “natural groundcover, trees, and climbing structures.”
“How the chimpanzees choose to spend their day is up to them,” the website reads. In 2016, that meant eating nearly 147 tons of fruits, vegetables, and “primate protein biscuits.”
But Chimp Haven doesn’t have space right now for all of the animals, Nature reported earlier this year. And some of the chimpanzees are elderly and not up for the taxing journey, which involves being anesthetized and shipped by truck for up to 12 hours. In January, the NIH announced it would form a working group to better determine whether a given chimpanzee is fit for travel to the Louisiana facility.
That group produced the May report on the chimps, which said 177 of the primates have chronic conditions and might not be a good fit for transport. It recommended moving the chimpanzees to sanctuaries “unless relocation is extremely likely to shorten their lives.”
Both Cassidy and Udall also sent a letter to Collins last week urging the NIH to “leverage all resources…to expedite transfers,” and pointing out that moving the chimpanzees out of research facilities could save money — at one of the labs, costs to taxpayers is nearly twice as much per chimp compared to Chimp Haven.
The NIH’s chimpanzees haven’t actually been used for research any time since 2013, STAT reported in 2015, when the decision to retire all chimps was announced. At the time, one of the laboratories housing the chimpanzees chafed at the insinuation that they were providing less-than-adequate care for the animals.
One of the chimpanzee research facilities is located in Alamogordo, N.M., in Udall’s state. It has 66 chimpanzees, according to the May NIH report.
Previously, the primates helped researchers understand HIV and hepatitis C in humans, as well as other diseases that afflict chimpanzees in the wild.
When asked about the amendment, an NIH spokesperson said she is “checking on” the situation.