Tuesday, January 07, 2003

PLIGHT OF THE "SURPLUS" LAB CHIMPANZEES

For Retired Chimps, a Life of Leisure
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG

...Jessie and Dover do not really have to be at Yerkes, but there is nowhere else for them to go. Bred for biomedical research, they are now unemployed, a result of a vast surplus of laboratory chimpanzees. They pass their days in small steel-and-concrete enclosures, playing with burlap bags and shredding old telephone books for entertainment.

But there may be better times ahead for these great apes and hundreds of their captive kin. Acting on a mandate from Congress, the National Institutes of Health announced last year that it would spend $24 million to help build and operate a chimpanzee sanctuary, in essence, a taxpayer-supported retirement home for research chimps....

Of the 1,600 laboratory chimps in the United States, N.I.H. officials estimate that more than 400 are not involved in experiments. Chimp Haven, which officials hope to open in 2004, will be on 200 acres of donated land near Shreveport, La. It may eventually be home to up to 300 chimps. Others may retire to a private sanctuary in Florida.

Some scientists, however, including Dr. Stuart Zola, the Yerkes director, fear that the federal government is setting a bad precedent by giving its imprimatur to the retirement concept.

"I see the retirement community idea as simply another ploy by the animal rights community to reach their eventual goal of abolishing the use of animals in research," Dr. Zola said. "I'm not opposed to it. But I think it is being driven by an animal rights point of view."

Advocates for animal rights are angry because the legislation that authorized the sanctuary included a provision permitting the animals to be returned to laboratories in a public health emergency.

"They cannot call a place a sanctuary if what it really is is a holding pen for when they need the chimps the next time," said Holly Hazard, executive director of the Doris Day Animal League, a lobbying group in Washington. Still, Ms. Hazard said, "Any day the chimps have enjoying the sunshine is one day more than before."...

With life spans of 50 years or more, some chimps may outlive the scientists who do research on them.

Big and strong, they are expensive to maintain. Yerkes, which has 174 chimps at three locations, budgets $500,000 a year for their care....

At Yerkes, the nation's oldest primate center, about 100 chimpanzees, including nine infected with the AIDS virus, live in the biomedical research compound in Atlanta, which is off-limits to reporters. An additional 20 are in New Iberia, La., and 55 are here in Lawrenceville, at a 117-acre field station where Dr. de Waal studies their social behavior....

Jessie and Dover, however, are not part of the behavioral research, and despite their unemployment, they are not likely to be among the first Yerkes chimps to relocate; Dr. Zola, the Yerkes director, said the New Iberia chimps will probably move first. While Dr. Zola said he would love to build similar large outdoor enclosures for Jesse, Dover and other unemployed apes, the hard reality is that he has neither the space nor the money to do it.

Of their current living situation, he said, "It isn't optimal."