The U.S. appears to be moving away from medical research on chimpanzees, announcing today that the National Institutes of Health will retire all 110 of its 563 research chimpanzees housed at UL Lafayette’s New Iberia Research Center. Non NIH-owned chimps will remain at the controversial facility.

The Humane Society of the United States welcomed the NIH’s decision to make the chimps at the center “permanently ineligible” for research. NIH is moving 10 of the chimps to Chimp Haven, a sanctuary here in the state, and the remaining 100 are being sent to a research facility in San Antonio but will not be used for research. All of them will be moved out of NIRC before August 2013.

NIRC, where The HSUS conducted a comprehensive and widely publicized undercover investigation in 2009, will no longer be receiving funds from NIH for chimpanzee research.

“This is a significant step in winding down NIH’s investment in chimpanzee research based on the way science has evolved and our great sensitivity to the special nature of these remarkable animals, our closest relatives,” NIH Director Francis S. Collins told the Washington Post. He said the NIRC decided not to seek NIH funding for its chimpanzee program beyond August of next year, a decision that provided an opportunity for NIH to permanently move those chimps out of research.

“NIH’s announcement is a significant step forward in our goal toward ending invasive experiments on chimpanzees and facilitating the move of the current population of chimps in laboratories to reputable sanctuaries,” Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The HSUS, said in a prepared statement. “With the Institute of Medicine finding last year that the use of chimps in invasive experiments is ‘largely unnecessary,’ we look forward to working with NIH and the Congress to develop a workable plan to move all of the government-owned chimpanzees to sanctuaries in the years ahead.”

The Post story noted that two incidents at the center — including the death of three macaque monkeys and the death of the an eight-year-old chimp during transportation to New Iberia — are under investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for possible violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

New Iberia continues to maintain a colony of about 240 non-NIH-owned chimps, according to UL Director of Communications Aaron Martin. (A 2009 IND story about allegations of chimp abuse at the center noted that it housed 6,500 primates.)

Martin tells IND Monthly that in 2012, NIRC began an assessment of infrastructure and research program needs for future development of the center. As a result of that assessment, NIRC decided to reallocate its resources and gradually discontinue housing the NIH-owned chimpanzee colony. He says the university and NIRC remain committed to maintaining the biomedical research (the chimps are made available to pharmaceutical companies). “We look forward to expanding services and capabilities to support federal and private research and continuing to work with the NIH,” he adds.

The U.S. remains the only country that conducts invasive medical experiments with chimpanzees, according to Pacelle, after the African country of Gabon pulled back from such work earlier this year.

Read the Post story here and the IND's reporting on the center here.

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