A chimp at New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana.

A chimp at New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana.

Doug Dugas/University of Louisiana, Lafayette

World’s largest chimpanzee research facility to release its chimps

In what it is calling the largest resettlement of chimpanzees from a U.S. research center, Louisiana’s New Iberia Research Center (NIRC) announced yesterday that it will move all 220 of its chimps to a sanctuary in Blue Ridge, Georgia. The animals include Hercules and Leo, which have been the subject of an intense legal battle over the legal rights of chimps.

Biomedical research with chimps has been on its way out since 2013, when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) said that it would phase out most government-funded chimp research and retire the majority of its research chimps to sanctuaries. Then, in June of last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated that all U.S. chimpanzees—including the more than 700 chimps used in research—would be classified as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. And this past November, NIH said it would end all its support for invasive chimp research.

In its statement, NIRC says that in June it will begin transferring its chimpanzees to Project Chimps, a newly announced 95-hectare sanctuary in the mountains of northern Georgia. The center—which held the world's largest colony of chimpanzees available for research—will move about 10 of the animals at a time to keep them in their current social groups. It expects to complete the transfer within the next 3 to 5 years. Though animal rights groups have long urged NIRC to move its chimps, the facility says that pressure had nothing to do with the decision, which it says has been in the works for more than 2 years. 

Two of NIRC’s most famous chimps, Hercules and Leo, returned to New Iberia in December of last year after 4 years at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, which was using the animals in studies of locomotion. From there, the animals—which were the subjects of a 2-year legal battle over their “personhood”—were supposed to go to Save the Chimps, a Fort Pierce, Florida–based nonprofit that bills itself as the world’s largest chimpanzee sanctuary, says Molly Polidoroff, Save the Chimps’ executive director. She’s not clear why they’ll end up at Project Chimps instead, but she says she’s just happy they are going to a sanctuary. “It’s good news, and it should be celebrated.”

Polidoroff says that Save the Chimps is still willing to take some of NIRC’s animals, especially if it will speed up the process of removing them from the facility. “Five years is a long time,” she says. “We’re ready for them today.”