Chimps and Research

Chimpanzees are intelligent, resourceful animals, and are humankind’s closest living relatives.

In the wild, these great apes use a wide range of tools for many different purposes. In captivity, they have been taught to communicate with humans by using American Sign Language (ASL).

An estimated 1,600-1,700 chimpanzees are currently housed in U.S. laboratories. Because of their similarities to humans, they have been used primarily to study infectious diseases and the effects of space travel.

From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) spent millions of dollars on a captive chimpanzee breeding program to enhance HIV and AIDS research. However, chimps proved to be poor HIV models, resulting in a “surplus” of animals that are expensive to care for and too valuable to euthanize.

In 1997, the National Research Council (NRC) advised the federal government to stop breeding chimpanzees and to work with private funding sources to establish sanctuaries for the “retirement” of research chimps. In December 2000, President Clinton signed the CHIMP Act into law. This bill provided federal funding to establish a chimpanzee sanctuary system so these wonderful animals would have a place in which to live out their lives in social groups in an environment similar to their native African habitat.

The Human Connection

To gaze into the eyes of a chimpanzee is a remarkable experience.

It is hard to ignore the connection we sense, stronger somehow than that which occurs when we look into the eyes of the cats, dogs, horses, and other companion animals in our lives. There, in those brown eyes, are: curiosity, an invitation to reach out, to play, to be together, and to communicate. There is something almost human about the interaction.

This should not be surprising, as scientists tell us these great apes are our closest living relatives. Recent DNA research suggests that chimpanzees and humans shared a common ancestor, with humans branching off as two-legged creatures and evolving into homo sapiens only about 6 million years ago. Humans and chimps share an astounding 98.4 percent of their DNA.

Chimpanzees in Research

Significant public attention is being focused on chimpanzees today because hundreds of these great apes have become eligible for “retirement” from research.

No longer needed for AIDS or space research and expensive to maintain, these chimps are now referred to as “surplus” animals. Some sit alone in small steel cages indoors, with no opportunities for exercise, play or companionship. Others are housed in pairs. Some have access to outdoor cages, while the luckiest ones live in small groups with access to large outdoor enclosures equipped with toys, rope swings, and other climbing structures.

In addition to the chimpanzees currently housed in U.S. laboratories, another estimated 300 chimps are kept in zoos and exhibits. Of those in laboratories, the federal government owns or supports 900-1,000; the rest are owned by private research institutions that use them to study infectious diseases such as polio, malaria, hepatitis B, and HIV/AIDS.  They have also been used in maternal bonding studies and to study the effects of space travel.

In 2013, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced a plan to retire all but 50 of its research chimpanzees to sanctuaries or other similar facilities. The NIH has also stopped breeding chimps for research and currently places strict standards on funding new research involving chimpanzees. Even though the NIH made the announcement and has made strides in reducing funding for research, as of June 2015, many of the NIH’s chimpanzees are still in captivity. In 2015, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services finalized a rule that would list captive chimpanzees as an endangered species, offering them the same protections under the Endangered Species Act as wild chimpanzees. Previously, captive chimps were listed as threatened, allowing them to be used for entertainment, as pets and in medical research. The new listing will make these activities more difficult and help protect chimpanzees from inhumane practices. For more information about the rule change, read this New York Times article.

About Chimpanzees

As adults, they range in height from 3-1/4 to 5-1/2 feet when upright. Females average about 175 pounds in weight; males weigh about 200 pounds. Dark fur covers most of their bodies except for their faces, palms of their hands, and soles of their feet. Their arms are longer than their legs, enabling them to walk comfortably on all fours. They have opposable thumbs and toes. They eat a wide variety of food, including fruits, leaves, seeds, stems, bark, honey, buds, and blossoms, as well as ants, termites, and some small animals.

Like human infants, chimpanzee babies are totally dependent on their mother’s care for survival. Youngsters remain with their mothers for 5-7 years. They can live to age 50 or 60. In the wild, they move about in social groups ranging in size from a few individuals to over 100 at a time.

Research has documented a wide range of tool use by chimps for a variety of purposes. According to Jane Goodall, the noted researcher who has studied chimpanzees at Gombe National Park in Tanzania since 1960, “Chimps use more objects as tools in more contexts than any other creature except ourselves.” For example, they will peel leaves off a twig, then stick the twig down into termite nests to “fish” for insects. Many use leaves to clean their fur. Some also use medicinal plants to treat themselves and others for illness and injury.

Goodall describes chimpanzees as intelligent, resourceful, and able to experience the wide range of emotions we usually associate with being human, including anger, jealousy, sorrow, and love. Like humans, chimpanzees maintain bonds that last for a lifetime, and do so not only with other chimpanzees, but also with humans.

One heartwarming story documented by the public television show, Nature, depicted a reunion between a 32-year-old chimp named Swing and the caretaker who had looked after him for five years in a hepatitis research lab 19 years before. The caretaker described the reunion as a very powerful moment for both of them, “full of hugs, tears, and grins.”

Since the early 1970s, chimps in captivity have been taught to communicate with humans using American Sign Language (ASL). Roger Fouts, former Co-Director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute in Washington state, documented the success of this work in his book, “Next of Kin.” Washoe, the first signing chimp who subsequently taught her adopted son, Louis,  how to sign, passed away in 2007; her obituary appeared in the New York Times – a tribute to her accomplishments.

Chimps in the Wild

In the wild, chimpanzees live in tropical forests or mixed savanna in equatorial Africa.

Their habitat is dwindling, as rain forests are cleared to build farms and villages. An estimated 35,000 chimpanzees remain in the wild, in populations fragmented by human development.

Despite their listing as an endangered species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), they are still hunted for food and captured for the pet trade, for entertainment, and for research in some countries.

The “Surplus” Problem

The United States no longer imports chimpanzees from the wild so, in the 1980s when scientists became interested in using chimps for HIV/AIDS research, including vaccine testing, they turned to those already in captivity.

Unfortunately, many chimps raised in captivity are either unable to breed or show poor maternal behavior. This prompted the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to spend millions of dollars on an extensive breeding program that has proved successful.

But chimpanzees turned out to be poor HIV models. They carry the virus, but do not become sick from it. Also, as in humans, it can take a decade to develop the disease, making chimps an expensive and time-consuming research model. As a result, laboratories today are faced with a “surplus” of research chimpanzees that cost the federal government over $7 million per year to maintain.

The Coulston Foundation

Another source of “surplus” chimpanzees was the U.S. Air Force.

As the 1990s ended, the Air Force was still housing 141 chimpanzees that were direct descendants and companions of those taken from Africa for space and aeronautical research in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1998, the Air Force gave these chimps to The Coulston Foundation (TCF) of Alamagordo, New Mexico, a private breeding and research facility that had run the Air Force labs.  That gave TCF the largest chimp colony in the world, with a total of 650 used for spinal-cord research and studies of Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and arthritis.

But TCF had problems. Poorly managed, the facility had a long history of violations of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) for primate care. After years of fines for inadequate housing and veterinary care, poor record keeping, and the unnecessary deaths of a dozen chimpanzees, TCF was ordered to close. Twenty-one of its chimps were sent to the Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care in Fort Pierce, Florida. Funding from the Arcus Foundation of Kalamazoo, Michigan made it possible for the Center to manage another 266 chimpanzees and 61 monkeys from TCF. Now known as “Save the Chimps,” the sanctuary can accommodate 300 chimps. Jane Goodall serves on the Center’s Advisory Council.

Why Sanctuaries

Captive chimpanzees cannot be released back into the wild for many reasons.

The primary reason is the lack of available land in their native Africa. Even if sufficient habitat existed, captive chimps released near wild chimpanzee communities would be attacked as intruders. In addition, captive chimps also lack the survival skills they would need in the wild. Furthermore, many captive chimps are infected with diseases that require specialized care.

At the same time The Coulston Foundation began to fail, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) sought to address the “surplus” problem at the national level.  In 1996, the NIH asked the National Research Council (NRC) to advise the federal government on the ethics, care, management, and potential use of chimps in research. Peter Theran, VMD, director of the Center for Laboratory Animal Welfare, an affiliate of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, served as the animal welfare representative on this advisory committee.

The NRC report, released in July 1997, determined that, while other species of “surplus” animals might be euthanized in the laboratory, chimpanzees deserved special consideration because of their intelligence, social nature, and similarities to humans. The report also supported the idea of building an entire system of sanctuaries for the long-term care of chimps no longer needed for research through a combination of government and private money. The CHIMP Act, signed by President Clinton before leaving office in 2000, provided the necessary federal funding.

Chimp Haven

In the fall of 2002, Chimp Haven of Shreveport, La. was selected by the National Institutes of Health to receive government support to build its first sanctuary on 200 acres nearby of lush, forested land. Groundbreaking for the first sanctuary facility in Shreveport took place in spring 2003.

Its goal is to provide low-cost, permanent, enriched housing for 200 retired research chimpanzees, as well as those no longer used for entertainment or as pets. The chimps live in a complex indoor/outdoor environment and are cared for as the intelligent, social, emotional beings that they are.

How You Can Help

Public pressure has been the primary force behind all the improvements made over the years in the laws and regulations protecting animals in laboratories.

The more you know, the more effective you can become as a force for change. Once you understand an issue, communicate your opinions to your legislators. Let them know how you would like them to vote on legislation that affects animals. The MSPCA’s Animal Action Team receives regular updates on issues concerning animals in laboratories as well as domestic animals, farm animals, and wildlife. For more information, contact the MSPCA Advocacy Department at (617) 522-7400 or at

Become a conscientious consumer. Learn as much as you can about the companies that make the products you buy, and choose to purchase those made by companies doing the most to develop and promote alternatives to animal testing to determine product safety. Check the Center for Laboratory Animal Welfare’s (CLAW) page on “Cruelty-free Labeling” and The Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics’ (CCIC)  Leaping Bunny Cruelty-Free Shopping Guide for companies.

If you are a student or a teacher, consider alternatives to the harmful or invasive use of animals in your classroom. The Center’s page on animals in the classroom contains much useful information for elementary and secondary school educators. Massachusetts teachers will also find the Center’s publication on the Massachusetts law concerning animals in the classroom helpful.

Publications on product safety testing, alternatives, genetic engineering, and retirement for research chimpanzees are also available.

For More Information

Here is a list of further information about chimpanzees in research.

Linda Brent, Ph.D., T.M. Butler, DVM, & J. Haberstroh, Lab Animal, “Surplus Chimp Crisis: Planning for the Long-Term Needs of Research Chimpanzees,” October ’87.

Linda Brent, Ph.D., Ed. “The Care and Management of Captive Chimpanzees,” 2001. Special topics in Primatology, vol. II. J. Walls, Sr. Ed., American Society of Primatologists.

Chimpanzees in Research: Strategies for Their Ethical Care, Management, and Use,” National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences, 1997. (Copies available from the Institute for Laboratory Animal Resources (ILAR), 1201 Constitution Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20418.)

Susan Feinberg, “Primates Like Us,” Animals, September/October 1998.

Roger Fouts, “Next of Kin: What Chimpanzees Have Taught Me About Who We Are,” William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, 1997.

Jane Goodall, “The Chimps I Love: Saving Their World and Ours.” Scholastic Press, New York, NY 2001.

Chimp Haven, an independent, nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide lifetime care for chimpanzees who have been retired from medical research, the entertainment industry or no longer wanted as pets

Save the Chimps, an organization with a mission to provide permanent sanctuary for the lifelong care of chimpanzees rescued from research laboratories, entertainment and the pet trade