Why Congress Won't Let 60 Chimps Retire

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They have spent their lives in research facilities, been injected with miserable diseases, and used by National Institutes of Health scientists to research new medicines, but now, after being designated by the NIH as "permanently ineligible for biomedical research," 60 chimpanzees, slated for retirement, are unable to be moved to a special sanctuary because of congressional inaction.

At issue is an obscure piece of legislation, The Chimp Act, which puts a cap on the amount of money the NIH can spend, from its appropriated budget, on the care of NIH owned or supported chimpanzees housed in sanctuaries.

Currently, there are 60 chimpanzees slated to move from the New Iberia Research Center, in Lafayette, La., to Chimp Haven in Keithville, La., this spring. In addition, this law also means trouble for the 100 chimpanzees currently housed in Chimp Haven, designated as retired.

"We have hit this wall, and we need this fixed, or else come mid- to end-November, we will not be able to pay Chimp Haven to take care of these animals," said Dr. Kathy Hudson, NIH Deputy Director for Science, Outreach and Policy. "Scientifically, ethically and economically that is a bad idea."

That wall Hudson is talking about is a $30 million spending limit, enacted under a law in 2000 that legally obligates the NIH to only spend that much of its appropriated funds on the sanctuary care for these chimpanzees.

These 60 chimps that have been designated to head into retirement are not alone. There are many more waiting behind them, since the Institute of Medicine advised the NIH to retire all of its biomedical research chimps, in favor of better, less expensive models for medical research. However, 50 chimpanzees will be placed on retainer in case they are needed for crucial medical studies that could be performed no other way.

There is wide bipartisan support for amending the law, but somehow, the permission slip got lost during the mess that was the government shutdown.

Wednesday, Senator Tom Harkin, D, Iowa, Chairman of the Senate HELP Committee and Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, will get the ball rolling in his committee, by introducing The CHIMP Act Amendments of 2013 (S. 1561), a bipartisan bill that the Committee will consider at an executive session.

"The National Institutes of Health has made a worthy and important decision to scale back the use of chimpanzees in medical research. Current law limits NIH's ability to use its existing funds to provide care to its chimpanzees already housed in sanctuaries, in addition to carrying out the important goal of moving the chimps current living in research labs. We have an obligation to provide care for animals that have directly contributed to our medical knowledge, and it is absolutely urgent that Congress act to remove this funding limitation now and for the future," the senator said in a statement to ABC News.

Hudson has faith that this issue will be resolved quickly by Congress.

"This is really an issue where there is no divide, it would be impossible to find someone who didn't support the NIH in taking care of these animals that have contributed greatly to biomedical research," Hudson said. "We are very grateful to the members and staff that have contributed to this bill and think it will move quickly through house and senate."

Harkin also expressed his hope for a quick bipartisan movement to ensure the chimps enjoy the sunset of their lives. "Moving these chimps to sanctuary care is not only the right thing to do, but doing so would also be more cost-efficient for NIH and for taxpayers. I hope that Democrats and Republicans can work together to ensure that NIH can use resources it already has on hand to ensure these chimps' well-being now and in the future," he said in a statement to ABC News.

Hudson agreed and explained that it is more cost effective to care for the chimps that are not being used in research in the sanctuary. "We're not breeding these animals, and they are an aging population. It will be more economical to have these animals there; overtime these costs will go down."