Chimps Endure Congressional Monkey Business

A picture taken on April 26, 2005 shows three female chimpanzees nodding-off as they sit on rocks in a family group, with the sun on their backs in their open air enclosure at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney.
National Journal
Elahe Izad
Oct. 29, 2013, 3:45 p.m.

If Con­gress doesn’t act soon, hu­mans won’t be the only prim­ates frus­trated with the polit­ic­al pro­cess — chim­pan­zees will take a hit, too.

Spe­cific­ally, re­search chimps owned by the Na­tion­al In­sti­tutes of Health. The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has de­cided it won’t use the an­im­als for re­search any­more and has plans to re­tire most of them. The prob­lem? NIH is pre­ven­ted by a 2000 law from spend­ing more than $30 mil­lion over time on the care of our fuzzy re­l­at­ives liv­ing in re­serve sanc­tu­ar­ies. The agency ex­pects to hit that lim­it by mid-Novem­ber.

It’s a chimp cliff, if you will.

“If we do not get the ne­ces­sary changes to the law it will be very grim in­deed,” says Kathy Hud­son, NIH deputy dir­ect­or of sci­ence, out­reach, and policy. “We cer­tainly don’t want to be in a po­s­i­tion where we’re in vi­ol­a­tion of the law, but we also don’t want to be in po­s­i­tion where these an­im­als are not fed and cared for.”

NIH owns and helps pay for the care of 670 chim­pan­zees, as of Oc­to­ber 2012. The agency had an­ti­cip­ated send­ing about 60 to the Chimp Haven sanc­tu­ary (which is sort of like Flor­ida for chimps). More than 100 are already in the re­serve, each cost­ing about $43 a day to care for. The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment provides 75 per­cent of the money re­quired to take care of the chimps, while Chimp Haven pays the re­main­ing 25 per­cent.

A bill be­fore the Sen­ate Health, Edu­ca­tion, Labor, and Pen­sions Com­mit­tee on Wed­nes­day would give Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­ret­ary Kath­leen Se­beli­us great­er flex­ib­il­ity in how to spend money NIH already has for the re­tired chimps in the re­serves. It’s sponsored by Com­mit­tee Chair­man Tom Har­kin, D-Iowa, and rank­ing mem­ber Lamar Al­ex­an­der, R-Tenn.

And if it doesn’t pass? The cur­rent law leaves few op­tions. NIH can’t send the chimps in sanc­tu­ar­ies back to re­search labs, where they are more ex­pens­ive to care for but where the agency is al­lowed to spend money on them. Eu­thanas­ia is pro­hib­ited un­less it’s in the “best in­terest” of the an­im­al.

Chimp ad­voc­ates don’t think it will ever come to that. Mar­cia Kramer, dir­ect­or of le­gis­lat­ive pro­grams for the Na­tion­al Anti-Vi­vi­sec­tion So­ci­ety, says private donors and vo­lun­teers will likely step up in the short term to help care for the an­im­als if money runs out. “It’s mor­ally un­ac­cept­able to the people in­volved that they would just be eu­th­an­ized,” Kramer says.

Giv­en its bi­par­tis­an sup­port, time is the bill’s biggest en­emy. It could pass the Sen­ate un­der un­an­im­ous con­sent. “This is the time when we really, really, really need Con­gress to work to­geth­er, and it’s an is­sue where there are no op­pon­ents, so this should be really easy,” Hud­son said.

If re­cent his­tory is any in­dic­a­tion, even the easy stuff is hard to get through a jammed con­gres­sion­al cal­en­dar. And as for wheth­er chimps are already fed up with Con­gress, none could be reached for com­ment.

COR­REC­TION: A pre­vi­ous ver­sion of this story gave an in­cor­rect af­fil­i­ation for Mar­cia Kramer. She is dir­ect­or of le­gis­lat­ive pro­grams for the Na­tion­al Anti-Vi­vi­sec­tion So­ci­ety.

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