Laboratories Without Chimpanzees

Deborah Runkle is a Senior Program Associate with the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program, where she has lead responsibility for monitoring issues related to animals in research.

The passion aroused by the use of chimpanzees in research is in inverse proportion to the actual number of animals used. That is, relatively few animals, great passion. Chimps have always constituted a very small proportion of animals in biomedical research [1], but their close genetic relationship with humans has made them a particularly valuable resource for studying select diseases and behaviors. However, it is this very same relationship that motivates opposition to the chimp as a research subject. Testifying before an Institute of Medicine (IOM) hearing, discussed below, Kevin Kregel, Professor of Integrative Physiology and Radiation Oncology at the University of Iowa, and a proponent of using chimps, acknowledged that “chimpanzees are a special case that deserves special scrutiny…” [2]

Chimps in Research

Although not used often, chimps have played an important role in medical progress:

  • Vaccines: Chimpanzees, along with thousands of monkeys were used in to identify attenuated strains of the polio virus that would protect humans against polio, without causing the disease [3]. Further, research with chimps led to the development of diagnostic tests for hepatitis A, B, and C and for vaccines for hepatitis A and B.
  • HIV/AIDS: Chimps played an important role in the early stages of the drive to find a treatment for AIDS. They were the only model available to explore the routes of infection of HIV, as well as viral replication and dissemination in the body [4].
  • Monoclonal antibodies: Monoclonal antibodies tested in chimps have been used to treat B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis [5]. The IOM report discussed below stated that, “chimpanzee/human chimeric monoclonal antibodies…have proven to be effective in both in vitro and in vivo assays to neutralize infectious viruses or to block the action of bacterial toxins.” [6]
  • Ebola: A viral disease with a mortality rate of up to 90% in humans, it is estimated to have killed approximately a third of the world’s gorillas, as well as many chimpanzees. “[B]y studying captive chimpanzees scientists are making progress towards an Ebola vaccine that they hope to test in wild apes and ultimately use to protect apes and humans…” [7]

Perhaps more appealing to the general public are behavioral studies. Scientists have demonstrated that chimps exhibit altruism [8]; have impressive memory skills [9]; and can solve complex problems [10]. More controversially, some researchers claim that chimps have “language” or “speech.” [11]

Animal Rights Groups

Despite the fact that “[h]umankind has benefited handsomely [12]” from knowledge gained through chimp research, the opposition to the animal’s use, led by animal rights groups like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), has been strong and often effective [13]. Scientists and others working for animal rights groups have debated the value of chimpanzees in research on hepatitis and monoclonal antibodies. For example, Jarrod Bailey, a geneticist and science advisor for the New England Anti-Vivisection Society (NEAVS), questions the value of all animal research, including chimpanzee studies [14]. Although there are now vaccines for hepatitis A and B, there is of yet no such preventive measure for hepatitis C, a fact that those working to prohibit chimpanzee research have hit upon as evidence that there is little value in using chimps for this purpose [15]. This conclusion ignores the fact that for many years, one could have concluded that non-human primates were useless in the search for a polio virus.

Opposition to chimpanzee research among the general public “has reached a historic high.” [16] People are accustomed to seeing chimps as cute and affectionate babies, not the 150 pound creatures that male chimps might become. Further, the pioneering work of Jane Goodall, studying chimpanzees in their natural habitat, has caught the imagination of millions who have watched documentaries, such as “Jane’s Journey,” with Angelina Jolie, or PBS’s “Jane’s Wild Chimpanzees,” featuring chimps charmingly named Fifi and her son Frodo.

And scientists’ cause isn’t aided with revelations of possible mistreatment of the animals. In 2009, HSUS reported that during the course of an undercover investigation at the New Iberia Research Center (NIRC) [17], it discovered “routine and unlawful mistreatment of hundreds of chimpanzees and other primates.” [18] On March 3, 2009, ABC’s “Nightline” featured disturbing video that was shot by an HSUS investigator who had obtained employment at NIRC [19]. Joseph Savoie, president of the University of Louisiana, issued a statement saying the university had a “clearly stated and direct no tolerance policy when the welfare of any animal in our care is threatened, and we will continue to strictly enforce that policy.” [20] Two months after that program aired, pursuant to a complaint filed by HSUS, the US Department of Agriculture announced that an “inspection revealed evidence of several issues with the facility’s compliance” with federal regulations regarding the care of laboratory animals [21].

GAPA and Other Legislation

Not surprisingly, the concern over chimp research has led to a variety of administrative measures regarding their use, as well as legislation, proposed or passed. In 1997, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced a moratorium on breeding government-owned chimps, and in 2007 stopped it altogether, citing cost concerns [22]. In 2000, Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection Act (the Chimp Act, PL 106-551). The Act prohibited the euthanasia of chimps, except for humane health reasons; established a federally-funded “retirement” system for chimps no longer needed for research; and required the government to assume part of the cost of lifetime care for chimps outside of research settings (chimps can live to be 60 years old).

In 2008, Representative Edolphus Towns introduced the Great Ape Protection Act (GAPA) in the House of Representatives (H.R. 5852). The Act stated that the “highly intelligent and social” apes cannot have their needs met in a research environment and that doing so causes the animals to “experience harmful stress and suffering.” GAPA would “prohibit invasive research and the funding of such research,” transporting apes for research purposes, breeding apes for research, and “require the permanent retirement of federally owned great apes.” [23] GAPA defined “invasive research” very broadly, so that it included any experimental procedure that could involve pain or distress; the testing of any drug that could be “detrimental to the health of a great ape”; research that involved tranquilizing or anesthetizing a great ape; or isolation or other “physical manipulations” that could be detrimental to an ape’s “psychological well-being.” The Act would have permitted only “close observation of natural or voluntary behavior of a great ape” if that observation would not require the ape to be removed from its social group.

Having failed in the 110th Congress, GAPA was re-introduced in 2009 (H.R. 1326) and again in 2010 (S.3694), but made no legislative progress. In 2011, taking note of the increasing concern over the national debt, the bill was re-named the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act (GAPSCA) and introduced in both the House (H.R. 1513) and the Senate (S. 810). This time around, the bill was headed for the Senate floor, where it was successfully blocked by Senator Ron Wyden [24].

The scientific community was not silent during the repeated introductions of the legislation.

  • In April 2009, the AAAS Board of Directors issued a statement stating, “Because of the unique role that studies of chimpanzees play in assuring continuing medical progress, AAAS opposes the Great Ape Protection Act….” [25]
  • Also responding to the 2009 iteration, the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics issued a statement saying, “These non-human primates are a critical animal model. Eliminating them from research will restrict advances in human medicine.” [26]
  • On September 3, 2010, FASEB responded to the Senate version of GAPA via a letter to Senators Maria Cantwell, Susan Collins, and Bernard Sanders (co-sponsors of the legislation) from its president, William Tallman: “Passage of the Great Ape Protection Act will inhibit medical advances and the research community’s quest to improve human health through new treatments and vaccines.” FASEB also issued an “e-action alert” to biomedical scientists, urging them to write to their senators opposing the Act [27].
  • In April 2010, 171 scientists “from the most renowned universities” wrote to NIH Director Francis Collins “decrying” the measure, stating that “human-chimpanzee comparisons are essential for understanding the unique characteristics of human biology.” [28]
  • In a letter to members of Congress, the American Physiological Society’s president, Joey Granger, “outlined the importance of the research at risk [29]” if GAPSCA passed.

The IOM Report

In 2010, NIH announced that it was moving 186 chimpanzees from the Alamogordo Primate Facility at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico to the Southwest National Primate Research Center in San Antonio, where they would be used in hepatitis C research. The chimps had been housed at Alamogordo under a 10-year-contract between NIH and the military that prohibited biomedical research on the animals while at the facility but not their eventual use in research elsewhere. Alamogordo had a troubled history; the chimps had been removed from the Coulston Foundation, a New Mexico research laboratory that the federal government determined had been abusing and neglecting the animals [30].

The NIH announcement did not go unnoticed. Along with Jane Goodall and animal rights groups, then-Governor Bill Richardson expressed “outrage” at the attempt to transfer the chimps to an active research facility [31].  On the second-to-last day of his term, Richardson was notified that Francis Collins had decided to “delay” moving the animals. Consistent with a request made by the governor, Collins requested the NAS/IOM to “weigh in” on the use of chimps in medical research [32], and carry out an “in-depth analysis to reassess the scientific need for the continued use of chimpanzees to accelerate biomedical discoveries.” [33] The IOM formed an ad-hoc committee, which held three 2-day meetings from May-November 2011, several conference calls, and two “information-gathering” sessions [34].

In its report, the committee acknowledged that it had been asked for its “advice on the scientific necessity of the chimpanzee as an animal model for biomedical and behavioral research,” and that it should not base its recommendations on cost or ethical considerations [35]. In fact, at its first public meeting, Sally Rockey, Deputy Director for Extramural Research at NIH, specifically ruled out the role of ethics in the committee’s charge, saying only that if it wasn’t scientifically necessary to use chimpanzees in research, it certainly would be unethical to do so. Nevertheless, a bioethicist, Jeffrey Kahn, then Director and Professor at the Center for Bioethics, University of Minnesota, was chosen to chair the committee. Thus, not surprisingly, the committee “recognize[d] that any assessment of the necessity for using chimpanzees as an animal model…raises ethical issues, and any analysis must take these ethical issues into account.” [36]

The committee issued its report on December 15, 2011. The report set forth the criteria it used in making recommendations on the continuing need for chimpanzees in biomedical research:

  • The knowledge gained must be necessary to advance the public’s health;
  • There must be no other research model by which the knowledge could be obtained, and the research cannot be ethically performed on human subjects; and
  • The animals used in the proposed research must be maintained either in ethologically appropriate physical and social environments or in natural habitats [37].

In addition to the criterion related to appropriate environments, the committee added the following criteria for comparative genomics and behavioral research:

  • Studies provide otherwise unattainable insight into comparative genomics, normal and abnormal behavior, mental health, emotion, or cognition; and
  • All experiments are performed on acquiescent animals, in a manner that minimizes pain and distress, and is minimally invasive [38].

Following are some of the committee’s key conclusions and recommendations:

  • “[M]ost current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary…. “ The committee allowed two “potential” exceptions: (1) there might be a “limited number” of monoclonal antibodies already in development that could require further use of chimps, and (2) “the committee was evenly split and unable to reach consensus on the necessity of the chimpanzee for the development of a prophylactic hepatitis C …vaccine.”
  • It may not be possible to study emerging or reemerging diseases in models other than the chimpanzee and, therefore, its use would be permissible.
  • Because chimps and humans are so genetically similar, “[c]omparative genomics research may be necessary for understanding human development, disease mechanisms, and susceptibility….” Thus, when studies are conducted using existing tissue or when minimum pain and distress is involved in collecting samples from living animals, this research is allowed.
  • When chimpanzee research could provide “insights to support understanding of social and behavioral factors that include the development, prevention, or treatment of disease” not obtainable through other means, it would be necessary [39].

Thus, although the IOM committee did not endorse a ban on research with chimps, it was hard not to interpret the committee’s conclusions as anything but a “watershed event” related to the use of chimpanzees in research [40], erecting formidable hurdles in the way of continuing federally-supported biomedical research, although not behavioral research, with chimpanzees.

NIH Reacts

Within hours following release of the IOM Report, Francis Collins made the following announcement: “I have considered the report carefully and have decided to accept the IOM committee recommendations.” He added that NIH was “in the process” of developing plans to implement the recommendations and that he had delegated the task to a working group of the NIH Council of Councils. The working group would “consider the size and placement of the active and inactive populations of NIH-owned or –supported chimpanzees” and no new awards for research involving the animals would be granted until the plans were in place [41].

Almost a year after its convening (January 22, 2013), the Council of Councils accepted the working group’s report, which included 28 recommendations, focusing on reviewing which currently-funded NIH studies with chimps met the IOM committee’s guidelines, establishing a process for assessing future proposed research projects to determine whether they are scientifically necessary and consistent with the IOM guidelines, and advising on the conditions and placement of both currently active and inactive chimps. The working group called for ending many ongoing studies, but recommended the maintenance of a colony of 50 chimps, should they be needed for future emergency research, as envisioned by the IOM committee [42].

Although the IOM committee’s guidelines included the recommendation that “[t]he animals used in the proposed research must be maintained either in ethologically appropriate physical and social environments or in natural habitats,” nowhere did it specify the nature of these environments. This gap was filled by 10 recommendations in the working group’s report, which set forth specifics, for example, regarding the size of a chimp’s living space, materials to build nests, and “an enrichment program developed for chimpanzees” that would include “relevant opportunities for choice and self-determination.” These criteria were an attempt to promote “a full range of behaviors that are natural for the species.” [43]

Stakeholders React

Given an opportunity to comment on this report, representatives of both the scientific and animal rights communities did so. An example of the latter are the comments of NEAVS and others activist groups that laid out in more detail the “exemplary” social and physical requirements of chimps [44]. The American Physiological Society expressed some of the research community’s concerns in its comments, which “urged” NIH to “revisit” the recommendations. For example, the society cited the working group’s “excessive reliance on inflexible engineering standards” in defining “appropriate” environments, rather than “performance standards” that “would better serve animal welfare.” [45] This particular critique was typical of the concern of scientists familiar with the issue, that is, the environmental requirements were unrealistic, at best, and more likely unrealizable. Some referred to the living space specifications as “condos for chimps,” and even Chimp Haven, the “gold standard” of retirement sanctuaries would not be able to meet the new requirements. Although the working group’s report stated that “[t]he majority of NIH-owned chimpanzees should be designated for retirement and transferred to the federal sanctuary system,” the fact is there was neither enough room in existing sanctuaries for these retired chimps nor the funds to maintain them. Further, many of the chimps in research settings were elderly and likely not to survive transfer from their current living spaces, not to mention the disruption in existing social groups this would entail.

On June 26, 2013, Collins accepted most of the working group’s suggestions.

  • Retain but do not breed a small group of chimpanzees for future research that meets the IOM guidelines;
  • Provide ethologically appropriate housing facilities, like those that would occur in their natural environment;
  • Establish a panel to review future projects that propose using chimps based on the IOM guidelines, after the standard NIH review panel had approved the research;
  • Wind down ongoing projects using chimps that do not meet the IOM criteria; and
  • Retire the majority of the NIH-owned chimps designated as unnecessary for research [46].

The animal rights community cheered this announcement, with Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of HSUS, proclaiming, “This is an historic moment and major turning point for chimpanzees in laboratories.” [47]

The only working group recommendation not adopted was the specification of 1000 feet of living space per chimp (more than in some small urban apartments) on the grounds that there was yet no scientific consensus on this criterion [48]. This modification in housing requirements meant that some chimps could continue to be maintained in research facilities [49].

Fish and Wildlife Service

Just weeks before NIH’s final action on chimpanzee research, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), acting on a petition from several organizations – including HSUS, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and the Jane Goodall Institute [50] – proposed to classify all chimps, whether in the wild or in captivity, endangered. This would change the status quo, whereby only wild chimps were considered endangered, and captive animals were classified as threatened [51]. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said that the earlier split designation was designed to permit the NIH to fund biomedical studies with captive chimps, but was “flawed.” [52] FWS justified this action by its determination that the Endangered Species Act “does not allow for captive-held animals to be assigned a separate legal status from their wild counterparts.” [53] If, after a 60-day comment period, the proposal was adopted, “certain activities would require a permit….Permits would be issued only for scientific [and certain other] purposes….” [54]

While the National Antivivisection Society pronounced the FWS proposal “welcome,” [55] scientific societies expressed their worries about the implications of the action. Both the American Physiological Society and FASEB urged FWS to “expedite the permitting process” [56] for “critical research aimed at preventing or treating devastating diseases…,” [57] but did not ask the agency to reconsider its decision. As of this writing, FWS has not issued a final rule.

Chimpanzee Rights

On December 2, 2013, the Nonhuman Rights Project filed the first of three lawsuits in New York State courts on behalf of four chimpanzees, two of which were used for locomotion research at Stony Brook University. The judges were asked to grant the animals’ right to “bodily liberty.” [58] Steven Wise, president of the rights organization who has taught animal law at several universities, said that chimps “possess complex cognitive abilities that are so strictly protected when they’re found in human beings.” [59] In support of its argument, the rights organization submitted affidavits from what Wise termed “nine of the world’s leading primatologists.” [60] In a live “chat” sponsored by AAAS, Wise emphasized that he was not asking for “human rights” for the animals, rather he was seeking “chimpanzee rights,” and that the animals should be declared persons who were being unlawfully imprisoned.

Wise also said he did not expect to be successful in any of the three lawsuits, a prediction that proved correct. According to Wise, two of the three judges expressed sympathy in their rulings dismissing the suits, with one of them saying “[y]ou make a very good argument.” The third, in whose court the Stony Brook’s chimps case was submitted, dismissed the suit hours after it was filed, without holding a hearing. Although a senior litigator for HSUS thinks the Nonhuman Rights Project’s arguments are academically impressive, he finds them “just not feasible” as a legal strategy [61]. The Project’s Wise is undaunted, and plans to appeal the cases to the appropriate New York Appellate Divisions, saying the “struggle to attain the personhood of such an extraordinarily cognitively complex nonhuman animal as a chimpanzee has barely begun.” [62]

The Future

Building on their success at achieving the near-elimination of all biomedical research on chimpanzees, animal rights groups are reaching for higher goals. Writing in the Hastings Center Report in 2012, Kathleen Conlee and Andrew Rowan, vice president for animal research issues and chief scientific officer at HSUS, respectively, argued that “[t]he process that culminated in the phasing out of invasive research on chimpanzees in the United States in 2011 can and should be applied to all other nonhuman primates.” Their reasoning sounds familiar: Research on primates should be halted for “ethical, scientific, and economic reasons.” [63] The force of these arguments on the public, congress, the executive branch, professional ethicists, and even some scientists should not be underestimated.


[1] Only .056 of animal studies funded by the National Institutes of Health, the largest funder of biomedical research, used chimps in 2011. “Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research,” The National Academies Press, 2011, p. 9 (IOM Report).
[2] Testimony before the IOM committee “Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research,” May 26, 2011.
[3] Albert Sabin, Letter to the Winston-Salem Journal, March 20, 1992.
[4] E-mail from Nancy Haigwood, Director and Senior Scientist, Oregon National Primate Research Center.
[5] [6] IOM Report, p. 37.
[7] William Talman, “The Benefits of Studying Chimpanzees,” Huff Post Science, posted August 6, 2012.
[9] “Young Chimps Top Adult Humans in Numerical Memory,” Science Daily, Dec. 9, 2007.
[10] Menzel, E.W., Savage-Rumbaugh, E.S., and Lawson, J., “Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) Spatial Problem Solving with the Use of Mirrors and Televised Equivalents of Mirrors,” Journal of Cognitive Psychology, Vol 99(2), June 1985.
[11] George Johnson, “Chimp Talk Debate: Is It Really Language,” New York Times, June 6, 1995.
[12] “Great Ape Debate,” Nature, 474, 252, June 16, 2011.
[13] HSUS sponsors a “Chimps Deserve Better” campaign, with websites soliciting donations, seeking “scientists, academics & health care professionals” to support the cause, and offering the opportunity to take the “chimpanality quiz.” In 2009, K-12 students were able to compete in a “Celebrate Chimpanzee” contest, and in 2012, activists were able to participate in a 5K Freedom Run.
[14] See, “An Assessment of the Use of Chimpanzees in Hepatitis C Research, Past, Present and Future, ALTA (Alternatives to Laboratory Animals),” 38(5): 387-418, 2010.
[15] R.H. Bettauer, “Chimpanzees in Hepatitis C Research,” Journal of Medical Primatology, 39(1), 9-23. 2010.  A group of scientists representing the National Chimpanzee Resource Consortium issued a sharp rebuttal to this article in a subsequent letter to the editor, 39(5), October 2010.
[16] Nature, id.
[17] NIRC is one of the federal government’s National Primate Research Centers and is part of the University of Louisiana.
[20] Id.
[21] The USDA is the federal agency charged with administering the Animal Welfare Act, governing the care of laboratory animals.
[22] Will Dunham, “U.S. Stops Breeding Chimps for Research,” Lifetime care for a chimpanzee can cost $500,000.
[23] Although great apes include gorillas and orangutans, as well as chimps, for all practical purposes, the Act was aimed at preventing almost all research involving chimps.
[24] Senator Wyden has a National Primate Center in his state.
[28] Jon Cohen, id.
[30] Dan Frosch, “Will Aging Chimps Get to Retire, or Face Medical Resarch,” The New York Times, Sept. 1, 2010.
[31] Id.
[32] “NIH Puts Hold on Move of Alamogordo Chimps, Pending NAS Study on Chimp Research,”
[33] Id.
[34] “Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research: Assessing the Necessity,” The National Academies Press, 2011 (IOM Report), p. 15.
[35] Id. at 14.
[36] IOM Report at 14.
[37] Id. p. 4.
[38] Id. p. 33.
[39] Id. pp. 4-5.
[40] Meredith Wadman, “US Chimpanzee Research To Be Curtailed,”
[41] “Statement by NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins on the Institute of Medicine Report Addressing the Scientific Need for the Use of Chimpanzees in Research,”
[42] “Council of Councils Working Group on the Use of Chimpanzees in NIH-Supported Research: Report,” (Working Group Report).
[43] Id. pp. 3-4.
[46] “NIH to Reduce Significantly the Use of Chimpanzees in Research,” (NIH Chimp Announcement).
[47] Chris Palmer, “NIH to Reduce Significantly the Use of Chimpanzees in Research,”
[48] NIH Chimp Annoncement id.
[49] Palmer, id.
[50] Darryl Fears, “Fish and Wildlife Proposes Endangered Listing for Captive Chimpanzees,”
[51] “U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Proposes Protection for All Chimpanzees – Captive and Wild – as Endangered,” (FWS).
[52] Fears, id.
[53] FWS, id.
[54] FWS, id.
[55] “U.S. Fish & Wildlife Proposes Listing All Chimpanzees as ‘Endangered’,”
[57] Letter from Margaret Offermann, FASEB President to FWS,
[58] Michael Mountain, “Lawsuit Filed Today on Behalf of Chimpanzees Seeking Legal Personhood,”
[59] Bernard Vaughan and Daniel Weissner, “New York Lawsuit Seek ‘Legal Personhood’ for Chimpanzees,”[idUSBRE9B1OUE20131202.
[60] Brandon Keim, “Judge Rules Chimps Can’t Be Legal Persons, but Activists Vow to Fight On,”
[61] Keim, id.
[62] “Chimpanzee Lawsuits Rejected in New York Court,” http://www.natureworldnews/com/articles/5270/20131211/chimpanzee-lawsuite-rejected-new-york-court.htm.
[63] Kathleen Conlee and Andrew Rowan, “The Case for Phasing Out Experiments on Primates,” Hastings Center Report, 42, no. 6 (2012).

This article was published as the cover story in the Fall 2013 issue of Professional Ethics Report (PER). PER, which has been in publication since 1988, reports on news and events, programs and activities, and resources related to professional ethics issues, with a particular focus on those professions whose members are engaged in scientific research and its applications.