Chimps in Laboratories
Research on chimpanzees began in the US in the 1920s, when psychologist Robert M. Yerkes began studying the behavior of a chimpanzee and a bonobo he had purchased. His work led to the establishment of the first primate lab in the US.
In the 1950s, the Air Force and NASA captured 65 chimpanzees from Africa to use in early space research and testing. These chimpanzees formed the basis of a chimpanzee breeding and research colony at Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo, New Mexico.
In the 1960s, federal funding was established in the US for the creation of primate research labs around the country. Multiple chimpanzee colonies were established, primarily by importing wild caught chimpanzees.
In the 1970s, with the passage of the Endangered Species Act, it became illegal to import wild-caught chimpanzees into the US. Labs responded by expanding their breeding programs to ensure a continuous supply of chimpanzees.
In the 1980s, an even greater emphasis was placed on breeding chimpanzees to produce subjects for AIDS research. Toxicologist Fred Coulston established the laboratory that would eventually become the Coulston Foundation in Alamogordo, New Mexico, not far from Holloman Air Force Base.
By the 1990s, as many as 1500 chimpanzees lived in US laboratories, nearly half of them under the control of the Coulston Foundation. By the end of the decade, it became clear that chimpanzees were poor models for AIDS research. The use of chimpanzees in research began to decline (although chimpanzees were still used in hepatitis research). A laboratory called LEMSIP closed its doors. The US Air Force also announced it would no longer do research on chimpanzees.
Also in the 1990s, the realities of lab life for chimpanzees began to be increasingly exposed, particularly at the Coulston Foundation, which was cited multiple times for negligence that resulted in chimpanzee deaths. The use of chimpanzees in biomedical research became more and more controversial.
In the 2000s, the Coulston Foundation closed its doors, and Save the Chimps stepped in to rescue the 266 chimpanzees living there. The number of chimpanzees in research labs decreased significantly, due to transfer of chimpanzees to sanctuaries, a reduction in breeding, and deaths of chimpanzees in labs.
In the 2010s, the Institute of Medicine reviewed the use of chimpanzees in medical research, and found that they were not needed. In response, the NIH announced that it would significantly reduce funding for research on chimpanzees, and retire all but 50 of its federally-owned chimpanzees. In September 2015, the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared all chimpanzees Endangered, restricting their use in invasive medical research. A month later, the NIH announced their decision to retire all federally-owned research chimpanzees; this includes the 50 chimpanzees they planned to reserve.
We applaud the NIH’s decision to retire all federally-owned chimpanzees. The process of retiring these chimpanzees is ongoing, and currently there are still nearly 700 chimpanzees living in US labs. This includes non-federally owned chimpanzees who are awaiting retirement. Though there is still much work to be done, we feel there is renewed hope that an end to experimentation on chimpanzees is on the horizon.
Life in a Lab
There is little consistency in the quality of housing and care that chimpanzees in research labs experience. Some chimpanzees in labs live in social groups and have outdoor yards. Some chimpanzees in labs may live in social isolation in a cage as small as 5′ x 5′ x 7′ high. Many lab chimpanzees have housing that is somewhere in between, living with a few other chimpanzees in a concrete and steel indoor/outdoor “run.”
Life in a laboratory can be monotonous, with little variety of food or activity, although this varies from lab to lab. Some labs place a greater emphasis on enrichment and overall well-being than others. For chimpanzees used in invasive research, life can also be painful and frightening, involving injections, dart guns, and surgeries.
Chimpanzees have been used in disease research such as HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, malaria, respiratory viruses, experimental surgeries, toxicology studies, vaccine studies, and other areas of invasive biomedical research. They have also been used in cognitive research, which examines their intelligence, thinking, language ability, and planning skills. Such studies may have an invasive component, such as anesthesia for MRIs or other brain scans.
Since its inception, Save the Chimps has rescued 320 chimpanzees, most of whom have a history of use in biomedical research. You can help us care for these chimpanzees, and rescue others in the future, by donating to Save the Chimps today.