The Deaths of 9 Retired Research Chimps Ignite a Biology Feud
In 2014 and 2015, thirteen chimps made a trek from Texas to Louisiana. Their home had been a cancer research lab; their destination was Chimp Haven, a sanctuary 22 miles southwest of Shreveport, Louisiana. The haven was supposed to be a place for the primates to retire in peace. But in the past 15 months, nine of those chimps—Simon, Maynard, Pierre, Ursula, Zippy, Cesar, Polly, Gigi, and Gimp—have died.
Their deaths have shocked the research community. Last November, the National Institutes of Health announced that it planned to retire and move all of its research chimps to the government-owned sanctuary. The relocation of these nine chimps predates that plan, but their deaths are a harbinger of the NIH’s large-scale animal transfers. And they’ve increased the divide between the chimp researchers, sanctuary leaders, and animal rights activists who have clashed over the most humane way to retire the US’s lab chimps—more than 300 of them.
The spat started in July, when Cindy Buckmaster, the chair of Americans for Medical Progress, wrote an impassioned piece in the journal Lab Animal that revealed the Chimp Haven deaths. Old research chimps would fare better, she argued, if they retired at their home labs instead of having to move. Her article got picked up by an animal research advocacy group blog. Then, as all good Internet debates start, people began piling on in the comments—chimp researchers, vets, the members of the Chimp Haven board. The advocacy group, Speaking of Research, responded by publishing ever more heated blog posts, and the president of Chimp Haven, Cathy Spraetz, eventually released a message on the sanctuary’s website calling out the “volley of accusations from a vocal segment of lab-based individuals.”
The primate research community doesn’t have much information about what actually happened at Chimp Haven. The chimps all died between one to seventeen months after they were moved, and it’s unclear why. (Chimp Haven declined to comment on the dispute.)
But there are some potential explanations. The chimps were old; some were geriatric. And everyone agrees that moving chimps is stressful for the animals: You have to sedate them before they’re shipped, then sedate them again once they arrive at their new home. Then they spend the first 17 days at the sanctuary in quarantine, to make sure they aren’t harboring any diseases.
The transition can take an emotional toll, too. When groups arrive, Chimp Haven keeps them together, since “the most important thing for chimps is other chimps,” Spraetz says. Later, the sanctuary introduces new chimps to an existing group slowly—chimps are territorial—and monitors them for cohesion for six months. If they don’t get along, they can attack each other. “It’s a traumatic experience,” says Michael Beran, a chimp psychologist at Georgia State University.
Researchers are split over whether it’s worth all that risk and trouble to move the animals to a sanctuary, where it’s possible—but not given—that they could get better care. Christian Abee, the director of the Keeling Center in Texas that originally housed the chimps, argues that those thirteen chimps would’ve been better off at the lab, with their human caretakers. “They’re a core part of the chimps’ family group,” he says, “and they have very strong bonds.” Plus, their home lab itself is a pioneering center for chimp care, with a large outdoor area and a whole host of vets and caretakers.
On the flip side, Spraetz points out that Chimp Haven is much, much bigger than most lab facilities, with multi-acre forest habitats and the ability to establish large, complex social groups. “That means more choices for the chimps,” she says, “who to eat with, who to sleep with, who to groom with.” And John Gluck, a psychologist at the University of New Mexico, thinks it’s worth it to move chimps to sanctuaries, too—he ran a primate lab for 20 years and was deeply concerned about the animals’ welfare, but simply didn’t have time to fully care for them.
So, move the chimps or not? Some researchers argue the moves should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and even a chimp-by-chimp basis. “They’re very individual—some are robust and courageous, some are timid,” Gluck says. To make the move easier, the chimps’ human caretakers could even accompany them to the sanctuary to help them through the transition.
There’s no formal procedure in place to make these decisions, but now is the time for one to emerge. Last week, the NIH released a proposed timeline for moving all of its retired research chimps to the sanctuary over the next ten years. The logistics haven’t been worked out yet—for one thing, Chimp Haven currently only has room for around 75 more chimps. So there’s still a chance to think about how best to move the animals, and help them live the best version of the rest of their lives.
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