After many decades of hard fought battles over animal rights and the immorality of animal testing, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently announced that it will end the use of chimps in nearly all of its government medical research. The announcement means that 310 chimpanzees that have been locked away in laboratory cages for nearly all of their lives will now be retired, released to live out the remainder of their days in sanctuary habitats that mimic the wild.

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The decision, though long-overdue, has been expected for several years. In 2011, the Institute of Medicine declared that there was almost zero justification for using chimps, our closets biological relatives, for invasive medical research.

“Americans have benefitted greatly from the chimpanzees’ service to biomedical research, but new scientific methods and technologies have rendered their use in research largely unnecessary,” said NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins in a press release. “Their likeness to humans has made them uniquely valuable for certain types of research, but also demands greater justification for their use. After extensive consideration with the expert guidance of many, I am confident that greatly reducing their use in biomedical research is scientifically sound and the right thing to do.”

Although decidedly brighter than it was a few years ago, the fate of the 310 chimps imprisoned at NIH research facilities is still uncertain. The organization admits that it will be retaining (but not breeding) 50 chimps for crucial medical studies that can’t be performed in another way. For the hundreds that will be released, NIH says they will eventually join more than 150 other chimpanzees already in the Federal Sanctuary System, but that some facilities are too full to accept them right away. There’s also the problem of funding, because Congress currently limits how much the NIH can spend on caring for chimps in the sanctuary system.

According to an AP report, NIH is currently exploring additional locations, and noted that some research facilities that currently house government-owned chimps have habitats similar to the sanctuary system. Although the retired chimps may not be subjected to testing in those facilities, their conditions will be anything but comfortable.

“…NIH did not accept, due to the lack of scientific consensus, the recommendation that the primary living space of research chimpanzees be at least 1,000 square feet per chimpanzee,” states the press release. “NIH will engage chimpanzee behavior and facilities experts to determine the appropriate minimum space requirement for research chimpanzees.”

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