Research Lab Surrenders 300 Chimps

In a move that animal rights activists claim as a victory, the Coulston Foundation, the largest primate research facility in the United States, has agreed to surrender up to 300 chimpanzees--half its current chimp population--by January 2002. The agreement was reached with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in response to charges the agency had brought against the lab in 1998 and 1999, from unsanitary storage of the chimps' food to unsafe veterinary and surgical procedures that led to the deaths of several animals.

As part of a consent decision signed on 24 August, the Alamogordo, New Mexico-based foundation will also allow a USDA-approved external review team to examine its operations and records and has agreed to implement that team's recommendations. Furthermore, the foundation has agreed not to breed or buy any new chimps, to employ an adequate veterinary staff, and to handle the animals in a way that does not cause them "behavioral stress, physical harm and unnecessary discomfort."

The Coulston Foundation is a private breeding and research facility supported by the National Institutes of Health, which conducts research into AIDS, toxicology, spinal cord injury, and vaccine development. It also houses chimps left over from the U.S. Air Force's space program and uses them in research. In recent years, the foundation has come under attack from animal rights activists for alleged mistreatment of its animals (Science, 22 May 1998, p. 1186).

According to a USDA spokesperson, the lab paid a $40,000 civil penalty in 1996 for violating the animal handling guidelines outlined in the Animal Welfare Act. But in 1998, after several chimps had died at the facility, the USDA started a new investigation, which concluded that three chimps died at the facility because staff veterinarians were not informed of side effects of drugs being tested on the animals; another allegedly died after undergoing surgery in a state of shock. By signing the consent decision, the foundation has ended USDA's investigation without admitting the charges.

Eric Kleinman, a spokesperson for the watchdog group In Defense of Animals (IDA) in Mill Valley, California, says that the Coulston Foundation lacks the staff and the resources to look after its 600 chimpanzees. Frederick Coulston, the foundation's president, declines to discuss the USDA's charges, but says implementing the agreement "will result in a better foundation." He says he welcomes the opportunity to work with outside reviewers. The lab has already started giving away some chimps to an animal sanctuary, Coulston says. But he adds that the recipients have to be chosen carefully, because they are not bound by the Animal Welfare Act, and they are not subject to government oversight. "You can't give them to just anyone," says Coulston.