Retired Lab Chimps Find Sanctuary In Louisiana. But The Move Can Be Tough : Shots - Health News Lab chimps used in medical studies are being retired to a forested sanctuary. But scientists and workers who care for the animals say some older chimps aren't healthy enough to make the transition.

Too Frail To Retire? Humans Ponder The Fate Of Research Chimps

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In the woods near Shreveport, La., there's a sanctuary for chimpanzees.


CHANG: These chimps once lived in research facilities. Medical research on chimps has stopped in this country, and now all of the government's remaining lab chimps are supposed to move to this sanctuary. The trouble is a lot of the animals are elderly, and some are fragile either emotionally or physically. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports there are tough decisions ahead about what's best for them.


NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The federal sanctuary is called Chimp Haven. It's already home to more than 200 chimps.

So who are all these chimps?

AMY FULTZ: (Laughter).

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Let's quiz you right now.

FULTZ: OK, we'll, I'm going to start with Passion, who has the little one on her back right there (laughter).

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Amy Fultz is one of the founders of Chimp Haven.

FULTZ: The gray one kind of coming to the left is Flora. Natalie's walking up at the front.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: We're watching a group of 21 chimps roam around a small forest of pine trees. This sanctuary covers 200 acres and has a variety of enclosures. The chimps can be rotated from place to place.


GREENFIELDBOYCE: We go see a group of 15 that's hanging out around some wooden climbing structures.


GREENFIELDBOYCE: Some are stomping around, having a spat. The arrival of breakfast distracts them. Fultz shouts a chimpanzee food bark.

FULTZ: (Imitating chimp bark).

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She starts to throw bananas and green peppers to chimps like Jacob.

FULTZ: Who is our oldest male. And you can kind of see he looks arthritic.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Jacob is around 58 years old. He was captured from the wild in Africa when he was very young. Fultz says at one point, he was used in research on prions, the kind of infectious agent thought to cause mad cow disease. Scientists have done all kinds of experiments on chimps. They've exposed them to radiation, put electrodes in their brains. They've infected them with viruses. Animal welfare advocates said this was immoral given that chimps are human's closest relative. And a few years ago in part because of public pressure, the National Institutes of Health announced that chimp research was coming to an end. All of its chimps would be retired to the sanctuary.

More than 250 chimps are still at research facilities, and they've been gradually moving to Chimp Haven. Fultz used to work at a research facility. She says some of the chimps she cared for there clearly recognized her when they arrived at their new home, like Hamlet, who was used in research on hepatitis.

FULTZ: He's definitely one of those chimps that I've known for longer than I've known my children. I've known Hamlet for over 20 years.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Each chimp is different, and although the NIH is trying to do right by these animals, knowing the right thing to do isn't always easy. To understand why, I went to Hamlet's old home. The Southwest National Primate Research Center is at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio. Big fans are blowing near some chimp enclosures. It's a hot day.

ROBERT LANFORD: It's a little warm. They're not as active as they normally are.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Robert Lanford is director of this research center. He points to one chimp using a tool.

LANFORD: This guy here is using a branch to get treats out of that feeder down in there.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: These cages don't look all that different from some of the ones I saw at Chimp Haven, although there's no forests here. The chimps also live in much smaller groups, maybe just a pair or three or four together. Lanford says many of these chimps were born here. It's their home. The people are like family.

LANFORD: These people have been with these animals forever. And the bond is a very long one, and it's very deep. In the beginning, the vast majority of our behavioral and veterinary staff did not want to see any of the animals moved.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says over time, they've come around to the idea. Now they're in favor of sending the chimps to sanctuary, at least most of the chimps. The NIH has about 80 chimps here. Lanford says seven of them need to stay.

LANFORD: Behaviorally, emotionally and physically, these animals have severe problems. We have an animal that's blind that is taken care of by it's two cage mates. How do you recreate that at Chimp Haven? And I'm not criticizing Chimp Haven. It's just that there are some animals that should not be moved.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: His staff knows how stressful the move can be. Maribel Vazquez is a behavioralist and caretaker. In the past, when retired chimps have traveled from here to the sanctuary, she's gone with them to offer emotional support.

MARIBEL VAZQUEZ: Even the ones that are very healthy, even the ones that are very strong - it's very scary.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says the drive takes hours. For safety, the chimps have to be alone in small cages. She can't explain to them where they're going or what will happen.

VAZQUEZ: And once you get there, they all have to come out of the van. And they don't know. And so there is a lot of crying. There is a lot of anxiety.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: One chimp was so terrified she refused to take important medicine.

VAZQUEZ: There are individuals that I think would have a really hard time and might not even make it through the transport.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This is the problem that the NIH is struggling with. More than half of the NIH chimps still at research facilities have chronic health issues that could potentially be exacerbated by stress. Jim Anderson is an NIH official who's been managing the retirement of the chimps.

JIM ANDERSON: The chimp population that's supported and owned by NIH is quite old. And they acquire a lot of the same problems that we do - heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes. There may be a few that are just too frail to move. And how do you approach that? How do you think about that?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Earlier this year, an NIH advisory group recommended that all chimps should go unless the stress is, quote, "extremely likely to shorten their lives." And if there's any dispute about whether or not a chimp is healthy enough to go, it said an independent veterinarian should weigh in. The NIH director is considering all this and is expected to soon announce a decision about how to move forward. The stakes are huge for both the chimps and the people who care for them.

Back at Chimp Haven, Amy Fultz says the risks of moving a chimp have to be weighed against the possible benefits.

FULTZ: There are chimpanzees that maybe we might have had some question about. But once they arrive here, because we can cater to those individual needs, they can be huge success stories.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: We walk by one cage that has several chimps.

FULTZ: This group has one of our oldest female chimpanzees. Sarah Anne is 59.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Sarah Anne was raised in the home of a language researcher and taught to use symbols for words. She has her own Wikipedia page. She was recently introduced to some chimps sent from a facility in New Mexico, including Marie.

FULTZ: And Marie loves to groom with Sarah and follows her around and gives her lots of attention. And we're seeing Sarah play with her and just being much more sociable. And at 59, that's a really cool thing to be able to see and watch.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Marie's arrival wasn't just a big deal for Sarah Anne. It was a milestone in another way. Marie came in a group of chimps that tipped the scales so that now more chimps in this country live in a sanctuary than a research lab. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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