What happens to chimps used in medical research?

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Chimpanzee Testing Today

Under the U.S. ChiMP Act, those chimpanzees retired from biomedical research would be cared for at chimpanzee sanctuaries with habitats more akin to their native homes.
Under the U.S. ChiMP Act, those chimpanzees retired from biomedical research would be cared for at chimpanzee sanctuaries with habitats more akin to their native homes.
Gerry Ellis/Getty Images

In 2000, there were around 1,600 chimpanzees in the United States being used for biomedical testing. Of those, the National Institutes of Health estimated that around 500 had been injected with a communicable virus or disease [source: Strandberg]. Many of the research chimpanzees were owned by the government, with the rest belonging to private pharmaceutical companies. But with the federal chimpanzee captive breeding program still in existence and diminishing demand for chimpanzee test subjects, the government recognized it had a surplus of the apes. The government needed to find a solution for the aging chimps infected with viruses and the healthy ones born into captivity. As a result, Congress passed the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection Act (ChiMP) in 2000. Eventually, the government cut off funding for the captive breeding program in 2007.

The ChiMP Act mandated that chimpanzees involved in federal medical research would receive lifetime care, rather than being euthanized. To make that happen, the government established a chimpanzee sanctuary system, formerly headed by the Coulston Foundation, where the chimps could live the rest of their lives outside of cages. Save the Chimps in Fort Pierce, Fla., replaced the Coulston Foundation and has become the national chimpanzee sanctuary, home to at least 135 retired chimps. Additional sanctuaries, such as Chimp Haven and the Fauna Foundation, help comprise the national sanctuary system.

However, some federal and private U.S. facilities continue to perform research on chimpanzees. The ChiMP Act specifically applies to retired research or privately owned chimps. In early 2008, the American Humane Association reported that 1,200 chimpanzees are being held in nine federally funded centers for research [source: Conlee].

The New Iberia Research Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette houses the largest chimpanzee population with approximately 370 under its management. Each of the nine facilities is required by federal law to form an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee to serve as the watchdog over animal testing procedures. For an idea of the types of projects that involve chimpanzees, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center covers areas like AIDS vaccines, drug addiction, Parkinson's disease and social behavior. Biomedical research performed on chimpanzees and other animals also have led to advancements in cardiovascular diseases and vaccine development [source: Strandberg].

Today, the United States and Gabon are the world's only two countries that legally allow biomedical testing on chimpanzees [source: Conlee]. In 1997, Great Britain quit granting licenses for the use of any of the four great apes as research test subjects. Other countries have since followed suit, including the Netherlands (2002), Sweden (2003), Austria (2006) and Japan (2006) [source: Humane Society].

While the United States still allows chimpanzee testing, the frequency of such studies has declined. In February 2008, the National Institutes of Health announced a five-year plan to accelerate the development of alternative testing methods to replace animal testing. If that proposal comes to fruition, most chemical and toxicology studies in the United States will take place in the cell cultures within test tubes, not inside humans or animals.