ATLANTA — Emory University might have to spend tens of millions of dollars to renovate the home of its research chimpanzees – all for aging chimps it doesn’t necessarily need.
The National Institutes of Health, the only source of chimp-research funding at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, is phasing out biomedical chimpanzee research – now deemed “largely unnecessary” – and might soon raise standards for the housing of chimps that do remain in research.
Only five of the 78 chimps at Yerkes are being used for NIH-funded research, but finding another retirement home for many of the others is a problem: The only chimp sanctuary Yerkes is willing to send them to doesn’t have money to make room for them.
Unless Yerkes finds new funds or abandons chimp research altogether, it must meet NIH standards, and that’s what could cost millions.
The NIH will decide at the end of March or early in April whether to adopt costlier standards for chimpanzee housing.
Yerkes is one of eight NlH-funded national primate research centers. The center’s two campuses – one at Emory and one in Lawrenceville – are home to nearly 3,400 primates. Researchers study topics that have practical implications for human health, such as progressive illnesses, memory, vaccines and immunizations, brain activity and behavior.
Yerkes spokeswoman Lisa Newbern wrote in an e-mail that the new recommendations “would provide larger space per chimpanzee than many humans have in their own homes.”
“Based on recent construction costs, we estimate this will be in the tens of millions of dollars for space that will have limited use given our aging colony and our hope to send additional chimpanzees to Chimp Haven,” Newbern wrote.
Chimp Haven, a sanctuary in Louisiana, is the only one meeting a lab-animal accrediting agency’s standards. But it has no vacancies.
How did Yerkes come to have so many excess chimps? “In the 1980s, the prevailing thinking was that chimpanzees would be the best animal model for HIV/AIDS research,” Newbern said. “As such, the NIH asked the research centers with chimpanzees to breed them.”
So they did. But now other primates are preferred for HIV/AIDS research.
There are no federal funds to expand or build a new sanctuary for retired chimps. The federal Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection Act, passed in 2000, places a cap of $30 million on sanctuary construction and maintenance.
Jim Anderson, the NIH’s deputy director for program coordination, planning and strategic initiatives, said that cap will be reached in July when the NIH renews its contract with Chimp Haven.
There are other sanctuaries, but Chimp Haven is the only federal sanctuary, and the one accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care. All federally owned chimps must be retired there. Yerkes, whose chimps are federally funded, wants the same standards for its animals.
“We would want our chimpanzees to be guaranteed the same level of care we provide as well as regulatory oversight to which we are subject,” Newbern said.
Yerkes has been accredited since 1985, but since then it has been cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the accidental deaths of animals and unclean or unsafe housing. In 2007, Yerkes was fined $15,000 for “willful” legal violations.
Chimp Haven is trying to expand without federal dollars, working with the Foundation for the NIH to raise $5 million.