Back when I was in high school and still trying to figure out what I wanted to do career-wise, I spent a summer working in a lab at the Uniform Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS) in Bethesda, MD. I was part of a research team that was looking into the safety and efficacy of a potential new drug — sucralfate. Sucralfate went on to receive FDA approval for the treatment of gastrointestinal ulcers in people. I’ve often prescribed it as a veterinarian, which always gives me a little thrill knowing that I played a small role in its development.
The coolest part of my summer at USUHS, though, was working with chimpanzees. The handful of chimps in our lab were only involved in non-invasive research and worked on a reward system so they were relatively willing participants. It was incredible to get up close and personal with our cousins from the animal world, but at the same time I had mixed emotions about the whole experience. While the chimps were treated well and not part of any painful research, their lives still fell far short of what they would have been in the wild or even in a more natural setting such as that which is provided in a top-notch zoo.
Therefore, in December 2011 I welcomed the news that the Institute of Medicine concluded that "although the chimpanzee has been a valuable animal model in the past, most current biomedical use of chimpanzees is unnecessary." This finding set the ball in motion for the retirement of the majority of the nearly 700 chimpanzees that are supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). On January 22, 2013 the Working Group on the Use of Chimpanzees in NIH-Supported Research delivered its recommendations for how the chimps should be dealt with. The entire report is available online, but I’ve paraphrased a few of the highlights here
The majority of NIH-owned chimpanzees should be designated for retirement and transferred to the federal sanctuary system. Planning should start immediately to expand current facilities to accommodate these chimpanzees.
Chimpanzees must have the opportunity to live in sufficiently large, complex, multi-male, multi-female social groupings, ideally consisting of at least 7 individuals.
The density of the primary living space of chimpanzees should be at least 1,000 square feet per individual.
Chimpanzees must be housed in environments that provide outdoor access year round. They should have access to natural substrates, such as grass, dirt, and mulch, to enhance environmental complexity.
Chimpanzees should have the opportunity to climb at least 20 feet vertically. Moreover, their environment must provide enough climbing opportunities and space to allow all members of larger groups to travel, feed, and rest in elevated spaces.
Management of chimpanzees must include provision of foraging opportunities and of diets that are varied, nutritious, and challenging to obtain and process.
Chimpanzees must be provided with materials to construct new nests on a daily basis.
The environmental enrichment program developed for chimpanzees must provide relevant opportunities for choice and self-determination.
Chimpanzee management staff must include experienced and trained behaviorists, animal trainers, and enrichment specialists to foster positive human–animal relationships and provide cognitive stimulation.
The report does recommend that a colony of approximately 50 chimps be maintained to meet future research needs. These animals will be housed and managed in ways similar to those recommended for the retired chimps, and the need for this colony and treatment of the animals be frequently reassessed.
Unfortunately, these new guidelines do not apply to the 200 or so lab chimps that are privately owned, and the funding needed to build, maintain, and operate sanctuary space is going to be an issue, but this change is a huge improvement for many chimps who have sacrificed so much for our well-being.