After a yearlong search, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has found a new caretaker for nearly 300 chimpanzees once used in medical research. The decision is a mixed blessing for animal activists, who are pushing for the chimps to be released to a retirement sanctuary.
Animal-welfare groups have complained loudly about the chimps' current caretaker, the Coulston Foundation of Alamogordo, New Mexico. They charge that the privately owned foundation provides inadequate veterinary care and keeps its animals in unsafe conditions. The foundation has denied those charges. In 1999, Coulston settled one investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) into animal welfare violations (ScienceNOW, 2 September 1999) by agreeing to give up 300 of the approximately 600 chimpanzees the foundation then owned. NIH acquired 288 of Coulston's chimps last May and since then has conducted several unsuccessful searches for a caretaker.
NIH officials have confirmed that they plan to sign a 10-year, $42.8 million contract with Charles River Laboratories, a company based in Wilmington, Massachusetts. The corporation would assume care for the NIH-owned chimpanzees, most infected with HIV or hepatitis during NIH research, at the Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. No experiments will be conducted at Holloman, says Judith Vaitukaitis, director of NIH's National Center for Research Resources, although NIH-funded scientists interested in conducting research on the chimps may arrange for animals to be transported to other sites.
The new caretaker is a positive step, says Linda Brent, president of Chimp Haven, an organization in San Antonio, Texas, that hopes to build retirement sanctuaries for former research chimpanzees. "I am hopeful that in the future [the chimpanzees] will be able to be moved out [of research] and fully retired," she says.