Legal issues around protecting chimps, Part I

Chimpanzees are the non-human animal most closely related to us, a circumstance that for many years led to lots of biomedical and behavioral testing on chimps in U.S. scientific laboratories. Chimps have been poked and prodded, infected with the HIV and Hepatitis C viruses, and kept in isolation without mental enrichment for years on end. Some chimps have gone stir crazy from the conditions; some have been rescued by sanctuaries. All have suffered.

However, a recent report issued by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and the National Research Council gives hope, but no guarantee, that medical testing on chimpanzees will soon be stopped forever. At the same time, Congress is considering legislation that would improve the situation of chimpanzees and there the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is considering giving captive chimpanzees endangered species status. And, the Nonhuman Rights Project is working to obtain legal “personhood” status for chimpanzees. These efforts concerning captive chimpanzees demonstrate the law at work in all three branches of federal government, Executive, Legislative and Judicial.

Part One: Chimpanzees in Medical Research

As the result of public pressure put on the National Institute of Health (NIH) in 2010 over its plans to put 176 chimps who were in quasi-retirement in the federally-owned Alamogordo (New Mexico) Primate Facility, back into active research, three U.S. Senators, Jeff Bingman (D-NM), Tom Udall (D-NM) and Tom Harkin (D-IA), requested the NIH to study the issue, which it did by commissioning the report from the IOM. The IOM was established in 1970 and is an independent, nonprofit organization that advises the federal government on health issues.

The IOM issued its report titled “Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research: Assessing the Necessity” on December 15, 2011, in which it recommended strict criteria for future medical testing on chimps. The IOM report does not recommend banning all testing on chimps and provides that circumstances may call for such testing again in the future, but it does establish criteria for when testing that is funded by the NIH might be allowed. The report recognizes that testing on chimps is no longer necessary in most cases because other means of testing have been developed over the years and that chimps are unique in the animal kingdom because of their closeness to human beings.

National Institute of Health Responds

While the IOM report is not binding on the NIH, the NIH did respond after the report was issued by announcing that it would stop new grants for chimp research from being issued while it determined how to incorporate the recommendations. It also said it would leave the New Mexico chimps where they currently are, at least for the time being. The NIH action only affects research chimps who are “owned” by the federal government, about 2/3 of the 900+ chimps currently available for research.

The Animal Community’s Reaction

Some animal protectionists are disappointed that the report does not go all the way by not recommending a total ban, but still are appreciative of the improvements it does recommend to the NIH. They point out that the U.S. is the only developed county, in fact, the only country besides the African country of Gabon that allows chimps to be the subjects of testing.

The IOM report recommendations apply only to chimpanzees, and not to other animals currently being used in medical research.

Coming soon…

Part Two: Congressional Action and the Endangered Species Act

Part Three: Chimps in Court?

Helga Schimkat is a lawyer, writer and activist who focuses on animal and environmental issues. This article provides a brief, general overview of animal law issues. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied on as such.