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). Because of their similarities to humans, they have been used primarily to study infectious diseases and the effects of space travel. However, in 2015, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced it would no longer encourage biomedical research using chimpanzees. As of 2017, there were still 577 chimpanzees housed in U.S. laboratories that have yet to be placed in a sanctuary. But, after two famously loved chimps were retired to sanctuaries in 2018, retiring rates have ramped up. In 2019, there were only 178 chimpanzees in government owned facilities and 190 in private facilities.
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 Bill 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: more than just sharing opposable thumbs, humans and chimps share an astounding 98.5% of their DNA. DNA research suggests that chimpanzees and humans shared a common ancestor, with humans branching off as bipedal creatures and evolving into Homo sapiens millions of years ago.
As adults, chimpanzees range in height from 3-1/4 to 5-1/2 feet when standing upright on two legs. Females average about 175 pounds in weight; males weigh about 200 pounds. Their arms are longer than their legs, enabling them to walk comfortably on all fours. Chimps 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 to 7 years, often helping care for younger siblings. Both in the wild and in captivity, chimpanzees can live to age 50 or 60. In the wild, they move about in social groups called “troops” 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 of a twig, then stick the twig down into termite nests to “fish” for insects. Many also use leaves to clean their fur, which covers most of their body, aside from their faces, as well as their palms and soles of their feet. Some chimps also use medicinal plants to treat themselves and others for illness and injury. Though not as sophisticated as human technology, chimpanzees’ tools are a significant marker of their intelligence and likeness to humans.
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. Due to a lack of survey data in several regions, it is difficult to know exactly how many chimps remain in the wild. Estimates range from 170,000-300,000, 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 illegally hunted for food and captured for the pet trade, for entertainment, and for research in some countries.
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, as of 2017, another estimated 300-400 chimps are kept in zoos and exhibits. Of those in laboratories, the federal government owns or supports about 260; 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 total, there are approximately 2,000 chimpanzees in the United States. The chimps that have not been moved to sanctuaries may never be transferred due to their age and health condition. Because of this they may be required to finish out their “retirement” in the same laboratory facilities in which they’ve spent their whole lives.
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 listing makes these activities more difficult and help protect chimpanzees from inhumane practices. For more information about the rule change, read this New York Times article. In 2019, all chimpanzees, wild and captive, have been listed as endangered. This protects chimpanzee habitat and prevents chimpanzees from being used for the purposes of human entertainment, research, or as pets.
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 resulted in an overpopulation problem.
However, chimpanzees turned out to be poor HIV models. They carry the virus, but they 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 were 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), a New Mexico 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 in 2002. Twenty-one of its chimps were sent to the Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care in Florida. Funding from the Arcus Foundation made it possible for the Center to manage another 266 chimpanzees and 61 monkeys from TCF. Now known as “Save the Chimps,” the Florida sanctuary can accommodate 300 chimpanzees.
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 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 Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection (CHIMP) Act, signed by President Clinton before leaving office in 2000, provided the necessary federal funding. In 2007, the act was amended when it was made illegal to return retired chimps to research laboratories, and in 2013, the CHIMP Act’s original $30 million spending cap was lifted.
In the fall of 2002, Chimp Haven, located in Louisiana, was selected by the National Institutes of Health to receive government support to build its first sanctuary on 200 acres of lush, forested land. Groundbreaking for the first sanctuary facility in Shreveport took place in 2003. By 2019, Chimp Haven was housing over 260 chimpanzees and was taking steps to bring in over 200 more. After a generous $2 million donation at the beginning of the year, Chimp Haven was excited to work on its expansion, including new forested habitats, allowing for the arrival of chimps awaiting retirement.
The sanctuary’s goal is to provide low-cost, permanent, enriched housing for 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.
For More Information
- 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 1987.
- 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.
- 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.
- Michio Nakamura, “Mahale Chimpanzees: 50 Years of Research.” Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2015.
- Andrew Westoll, “The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A True Story of Resilience and Recovery.” Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY, 2011.
- 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
- Nell Greenfieldboyce, “Report: Most Former Research Chimps Should Move to Retirement Sanctuaries.” NPR, 2018.
- De Waal, F. (2019). Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and what They Tell Us about Ourselves. WW Norton & Company.
- Portraits and backgrounds of retired research chimps (franknoelker.com)