RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene. In the animal world, our closest relatives are chimpanzees, which is why they're often used in biomedical research. But that practice is under scrutiny. And in response, the National Institutes of Health may soon be sending more of its research chimps into retirement.
Here's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Retirees flock to Florida, and the Sunshine State even has a retirement home for chimps.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHIMPANZEES)
GREENFIELDBOYCE: About two dozen have gathered in a small building, to have lunch. They watch eagerly as workers hand out apples and tomatoes.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHIMPANZEES)
GREENFIELDBOYCE: After lunch, these chimps can go out and enjoy their own private island - three grassy acres with palm trees and a wooden climbing structure. It's all surrounded by a moat. And it's just one of a dozen manmade islands here, each with its own group of chimps. This is Save the Chimps, the world's biggest sanctuary for chimps who've been used for experiments, entertainment, or as pets. Two hundred and sixty-six chimps live here - from 6 years old to over 50.
JEN FEUERSTEIN: Hey, guys. This is Luke on the left, and Virgil on the right. And then the chimp walking up is Christopher.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Jen Feuerstein is the sanctuary's director. As she drives around in a golf cart, she recognizes every one.
FEUERSTEIN: Oh, somebody in a tree.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says the chimp sitting on a branch is Jaybee, who spent years living alone in a small lab cage.
FEUERSTEIN: Never went outside, never even saw the sun. So to see him outside in a tree, munching on leaves just like a wild chimp would, is pretty amazing.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She's fond of these chimps but she keeps a certain distance. Feuerstein says the goal of a sanctuary like this is for chimps to live like wild chimps and bond with other chimps. So working here isn't what people might expect.
FEUERSTEIN: I think they imagine playing with them and being in with them, and having that kind of intimate interaction with them, that really doesn't happen. Our job really is we're housekeepers. We're maids, we're butlers, we're servants.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: It takes about fifty employees to do the endless; hosing down indoor rooms, preparing food, doing the laundry. The chimp's brightly colored blankets and teddy bears hang on clotheslines to dry. Every day, workers go out on the islands to scatter treats and toys.
(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And then there's the medical care.
FEUERSTEIN: So this is what we call the med room, but it's basically a full pharmacy.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: About half the chimps get daily meds, for everything from arthritis to heart disease; all this care costs around $15,000 per chimp per year. At the moment, Save the Chimps doesn't have any chimps that are supported by the government, but that could change. Next week, the National Institutes of Health will hear from a working group that's been considering how many of its chimps should be available for experiments, and how many should be retired.
JAMES ANDERSON: After the recommendations from our working group, we anticipate there will be a much diminished need for animals in research.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: James Anderson is an official with the NIH who has been working on the chimp issue. He says, the NIH owns or supports about 670 chimps. About a hundred are already officially retired and live at a wooded sanctuary in Louisiana, called Chimp Haven. If more chimps are going to be retired, it's not clear where they'll go.
ANDERSON: The single biggest issue will be the capacity of the sanctuary system. If we retire many more animals, there's no space.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says existing sanctuaries could expand. But right now, the NIH can't give them any money to do that. That's because, under a law passed in 2000, there's a cap on how much the agency can spend on chimp sanctuaries.
ANDERSON: Congress set a cap of $30 million on total spending for construction and care of the animals in-sanctuary. And we are already over $29 million; we'll hit that cap in July of this year.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: It will take Congress to fix this. In the meantime, because the spending cap only applies to sanctuaries, one option is for retired chimps to just stay in research facilities.
ANDERSON: And we could continue to use taxpayer dollars in that context to take care of them.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's one reason why, when officials recently had to find a new home for about a hundred lab chimps, they decided to make them ineligible for experiments, but only a small number would go to a sanctuary. The rest would get moved to a different lab that had space to house them. The decision caused a public outcry.
JENNIFER WHITAKER: We did step up and say we want them all.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Jennifer Whitaker is vice president of Chimp Haven in Louisiana.
WHITAKER: We wanted them permanently retired at our sanctuary.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: NIH officials quickly reversed course and agreed. But they could only do that because Chimp Haven and other non-profits said they'd raise about $5 million and construct new living spaces.
WHITAKER: We're in the process of raising those funds and we are feeling very encouraged, but we do still have a long ways to go.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Back at Save the Chimps in Florida, Jen Feuerstein says her sanctuary is at capacity. But if more government chimps are retired, they'd consider expanding, if there's funding. She says most lab chimps adapt well to sanctuary life. But some do have problems.
FEUERSTEIN: Hi, cheetah. Hey, buddy.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Cheetah is a research chimp who lived most of his life alone. He can't adjust to a group. He pokes a piece of orange hose through a metal fence and gently drags it across her arm - his way of grooming her.
FEUERSTEIN: I don't know if you can hear him clacking his teeth.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLACKING TEETH)
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says this is a soothing sound chimps make, a way of saying, hey, I'm not going to hurt you. This sanctuary has other chimps with special needs, and it wants to improve their housing, but like everything else, that means first having to raise the money.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.