WASHINGTON The U.S. National Institutes of Health, which supports a variety of biomedical studies using animals, will stop breeding government-owned chimpanzees for research -- a step animal rights advocates lauded on Thursday.
The NIH's National Center for Research Resources cited financial reasons for its decision this week to permanently cease breeding of government-owned chimpanzees for research. A breeding moratorium on NCRR-owned and supported chimpanzees had been in place since 1995.
The Humane Society of the United States said it suspects that ethical reasons also were involved in the decision. The group, which opposes the use of these apes as lab animals, said the decision on ending breeding likely also means NIH no longer will be acquiring new chimpanzees through other means.
Because chimpanzees are physiologically and genetically similar to people, they have been used in medical research defended by many scientists but scorned by animals rights advocates on ethical grounds.
"This decision is a huge step towards a day when chimpanzees are no longer used in invasive biomedical research and testing," Kathleen Conlee of the Humane Society said in a statement.
"This will spare some chimpanzees a life of up to 60 years in a laboratory. While it doesn't help chimpanzees already living in laboratories, it is a monumental decision," Conlee added. "Our ultimate goal is to put an end (to) the use of chimpanzees in research and retire those chimpanzees to permanent and appropriate sanctuary."
The Humane Society said the NCRR's chimpanzee population includes about 500 in laboratories and 90 more in a federal sanctuary for those deemed no longer needed for research.
In a statement on its Web site, NCRR said it acknowledges the continuing importance of chimpanzees to biomedical research, but cited "fiduciary responsibilities" to maintain the health and well-being of chimpanzees already in its care.
The center said chimpanzees can live at least 50 years in captivity, and that high-quality care for a single animal over its lifespan can cost up to $500,000. It said it also must meet budget responsibilities to other programs and resources.
"Therefore, after careful review of existing chimpanzee resources, NCRR has determined that it does not have the financial resources to support the breeding of chimpanzees that are owned or supported by NCRR," the center said.
"However, NCRR will continue to honor its commitments to the existing chimpanzee facilities, including the federal sanctuary for chimpanzees that are no longer needed in biomedical research," the center added.
The advocacy group Project R&R: Release and Restitution for Chimpanzees in U.S. Laboratories said about 1,300 chimpanzees are currently in U.S. laboratories. It said some were caught in the wild as babies in Africa while others were born in laboratories or sent from zoos, circuses and animal trainers.
Theodora Capaldo, the group's executive director, said that "not only U.S. but also world sentiment is growing in support of the day when no chimpanzees will be used in laboratory research."