Tuesday, October 01, 2002

...at least for now.

RITA CHIMPANZEE TO RETIRE

For Chimps, Some Space To Live Out Golden Years
La. Retirement Sanctuary to House Ex-Research Animals
By a Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 1, 2002; Page A19

[Photo] A $35 million retirement facility is planned for chimpanzees such as Doll and Alvin, who were used by the United States in biomedical research.

Finally, after more than four decades of public service, it's retirement time for Rita.

The 47-year-old chimpanzee, brought to the United States from Africa by the Air Force in the 1950s, is a prime candidate for a new retirement home to be built near Shreveport, La....

"After these chimpanzees have endured years in medical research laboratories, society owes them a tremendous debt," said Larry Hawk, president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Proponents of the project said it will save taxpayers money in the long run because the cost of keeping chimpanzees in research labs is about double the cost per animal of harboring them in the sanctuary. According to chimpanzee advocates, there are 1,300 to 1,600 federally owned or supported chimpanzees in biomedical laboratories, including 600 to 900 who are eligible for retirement because they are no longer used for research.

Most of the federally owned chimps are kept in labs in Georgia, Louisiana, Texas [2], New Mexico and Arizona. Fewer than 40 are in the Washington [D.C.] area [2], and none of those are now eligible for retirement because they are still being used for research into infectious diseases, said John Strandberg, director of comparative medicine at NIH's National Center for Research Resources.

Chimpanzees have been used to develop a vaccine for hepatitis B and for research into the virus that causes AIDS. Starting in the early 1980s, they were "aggressively bred" in the United States for AIDS research, but they turned out to be of limited use because they did not get sick from the virus, Brent said.

Among those formerly used for breeding is Rita, who was one of the original chimps brought in by the Air Force for the U.S. space program. She was kept at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico until 1969, then sent to a lab in San Antonio.

"She's real pretty," said Brent, who works at the lab.

Since the animals, an endangered species with a lifespan of up to 60 years, are not euthanized or used for "terminal studies" that can result in their death, many live out their days in 5-by-5-foot cages, she said.

"Some of them have never climbed a tree or walked on grass before." For them, Brent said, the sanctuary means "giving back to the chimps a little bit of their own natural history."