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Last week on this program, we looked at the challenge the National Institutes of Health would face if it received a recommendation to end the use of chimpanzees for biomedical research. Well, now a working group of experts, put together by NIH, has made exactly that recommendation; which means that several hundred chimpanzees at the institute will no longer be used for laboratory experiments.
Animal rights groups are applauding the move. Though where the chimps will go to retire is still unclear, as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Chimpanzees are the animals most closely related to humans, and that's why their use in research has been getting special scrutiny. About a year ago, an independent report, commissioned by the National Institutes of Health, said that most biomedical research being done on chimps is not scientifically necessary. So the NIH put together a working group to give advice on what to do.
Kent Lloyd served as co-chair. He's a researcher at the University of California, Davis.
KENT LLOYD: I mean, clearly, there is going to be a reduction in the use of chimpanzees in research. I don't believe that that will be at the cost of research advances, because there are other things that are going on that are improving our ability to use other animal model systems.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The NIH currently owns about 360 chimpanzees that aren't yet retired and that are living at research facilities. The new report from the working group says the majority should be retired and sent to a sanctuary, a non-laboratory setting where chimps can live more natural lives. Only a small population of about 50 chimps should be retained for any future research needs.
What's more, the report lays out a detailed description of the kind of living conditions that research chimps should be given. And Lloyd says defining those conditions was a challenging task.
LLOYD: I wouldn't characterize it as contentious. But I would characterize it as intense and thoughtful.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The group concluded that chimps need to live in social groups of at least seven. And each chimp should have at least 1,000 square feet of living space, plus year-round access to the outdoors. Chimps should be able to do things like forage for food and build nests. But if the NIH accepts these recommendations, putting them into effect won't be easy.
James Anderson is an official with the NIH. He says the existing chimp sanctuary system is already full.
JAMES ANDERSON: Currently there's no space there. There's no capacity.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: NIH doesn't have the money to pay for building new living quarters at sanctuaries. And even if it did, the NIH faces a restriction on its spending. When Congress created the chimp sanctuary system, back in 2000, it put a spending cap in place, limiting funding to a total of $30 million. Anderson says NIH will hit that cap this summer.
ANDERSON: It is a concern for us and it's something that we'd have to have addressed at the Congressional level.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The NIH will take public comments on the new report and a decision is expected in March.
Groups that have been working to end chimp research say they're encouraged by what's been happening.
KATHLEEN CONLEE: We are very pleased with the report. You know, of course we'd want to see every single chimpanzee recommended to go to sanctuary, but this is a huge step in the right direction.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Kathleen Conlee is with The Humane Society of the United States.
CONLEE: So now, it's time to roll our sleeves up and figure out how we are going to get all these animals to sanctuary, and give them the lifetime of retirement that they so deserve.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: At the same time, her group is also lobbying for federal legislation to limit chimp research. She says that's because whatever the NIH does will not apply to the 200-or-so lab chimps that are privately owned.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.