What do we owe former lab chimps?

The U.S. government and private labs bred hundreds of chimpanzees for biomedical research. But now, there's a question over who should pay for their care.

By Rachel Fobar
Published 17 Jun 2022, 13:37 BST
Magic is one of 18 chimpanzees stranded at Wildlife Waystation, a sanctuary in California that closed ...
Magic is one of 18 chimpanzees stranded at Wildlife Waystation, a sanctuary in California that closed in 2019. The National Institutes of Health and private laboratories bred hundreds of chimps for medical research, which ended in 2015. Seven years later, more than a hundred of them still haven’t been placed in accredited sanctuaries.

The scene behind the chain-link gate brings to mind a derelict frontier town—but instead of nature reclaiming a sheriff’s office and saloon, weeds and vines are overtaking hundreds of rusting cages in an abandoned wildlife sanctuary. An eerie silence hangs over grounds that had once reverberated with the roaring of African lions and the squawking of exotic birds.

“DANGER,” reads a sign on an empty enclosure. “WILD ANIMALS BITE FINGERS.” A half-completed cleaning checklist is clipped next to the cage door, as if the animals’ keepers will be back at any moment. 

They won’t be. Wildlife Waystation—a 160-acre, privately owned animal sanctuary in Sylmar, California, that opened in 1976—folded in August 2019, plagued by longstanding financial troubles, among other problems. Its closure left more than 480 animals in urgent need of new homes. Among them were wolves, lions, tigers, camels, foxes, servals, tortoises—and 42 chimpanzees. Most of the chimps had come from laboratories where they’d been used for medical research; a few were cast-offs from the movie industry or pets surrendered by overwhelmed owners.  

Jeff, a former pet, is the peacemaker of his five-member group in Wildlife Waystation, mostly made up of chimps from the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP), a New York University laboratory that closed in 1997.
At LEMSIP, the chimps lived alone in these aluminum cages, which Wildlife Waystation has used only to transport the animals during emergencies. “There was no out,” says Anher Flores of the chimps’ living conditions at the lab. Flores is one of a handful of staff still caring for the sanctuary’s remaining animals.

Within a year of the California sanctuary’s closure, wildlife facilities around the United States took in most of the animals, including more than half the chimpanzees. But 18 chimps remained in limbo, most of them retirees from the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP), a now-defunct private research facility funded by New York University’s School of Medicine. 

Chimps have not been used in invasive biomedical research— any research that causes injury, pain, or distress—in U.S. laboratories since 2015. The European Union, including the U.K., banned such research using great apes like orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees in 2010.

But in the U.S. what to do with the former research chimps—and how to pay for their costly lifetime care—is a continuing conundrum. More than 250 chimps remain in labs, and even some that have been promised a home, like the 18 now at Wildlife Waystation, face a financially uncertain future. The unresolved fate of the former research chimps offers a cautionary tale about ethical quandaries and obligations to animals used in research intended to benefit humans.

The National Institutes of Health funds the lifelong care of its former research chimpanzees. There are 105 in various laboratories, many too old and frail to move, their owners say, and 317 between the ages of four and 61 living at Chimp Haven, a private sanctuary in Louisiana that’s the designated retirement home for the government’s chimps. But more than a hundred others linger in research institutions unsupported by the federal government. 

Jeff poses for the camera, lounging on the floor and glancing over his shoulder.

Feeding and caring for a captive chimp costs an estimated $17,000 (£13,800) a year, according to Chimp Haven. “This isn’t like caring for a dog or a cat,” says Kate Thompson, a Wildlife Waystation board member. “It’s childcare.”

On top of that, building new housing for chimps can run into millions of dollars—a key reason why it’s been difficult for laboratories to place them in accredited sanctuaries. 

Animal welfare advocates accuse NIH and private laboratories such as NYU’s LEMSIP of abdicating their obligation to support the chimps they bred. 

“Where is the accountability?” asks Eric Kleiman, a researcher at the Animal Welfare Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group.

The end of biomedical research on chimps

Chimpanzees are complex, intelligent, highly social animals that live around 30 to 40 years in captivity, though some have been known to reach their 70s. Chimpanzees share nearly all their DNA with humans, making them our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom, along with bonobos. 

Because of that, chimps have proven useful in some biomedical research—especially on hepatitis B and C, according to the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, as well as in developing treatments for other infectious diseases. 

By the mid-1980s, a new scourge, HIV/AIDS, began killing thousands of people in the U.S. alone, and in 1986, as part of a national effort to combat the disease, NIH established the Chimpanzee Breeding and Research Program to ensure a reliable supply of the animals. 

Eventually, some 1,500 chimps lived in captivity in the U.S., and the NIH had spent millions of dollars on AIDS research before it became clear that for HIV/AIDS, chimps were poor proxies for humans. Meanwhile, a number of private medical institutions and universities acquired chimps for their own research interests and undertook captive-breeding programs. 

Anher Flores has worked at Wildlife Waystation as a caretaker for more than 30 years. The chimps seem to regard him as somewhat of a father figure. Though he warns visitors to stay back from their enclosures, he gets close, scratching bellies and handing out apple juice. “They don’t dare to grab me,” he says.

NIH stopped breeding chimps in 1995, and five years later, President Bill Clinton signed the CHIMP Act, in which the government agreed to send all “federally owned or supported chimpanzees no longer needed for research” to sanctuaries and to pay for their lifetime care in retirement.  

Fifteen years passed before NIH stopped all invasive research on chimpanzees, in 2015, making all its chimps and those in research laboratories supported by NIH funds eligible for retirement. Institutions scrambled to find places to “dump” their chimps, says Kleiman. 

The same year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed captive chimps as endangered. This meant that research and experimentation could be done on chimps only if the institution could show that the work enhanced the survival of chimps in the wild. 

It is “not correct” that the CHIMP Act requires the NIH to fund the lifelong care of all chimps retired from institutions that have at some point received government funding for their research, the NIH said in a statement. It did not elaborate on how it determined which chimps were federally-supported when the CHIMP Act passed. 

Representative Jim Greenwood, a Republican from Pennsylvania and lead sponsor of the CHIMP Act, however, says the law applies to “federally owned or supported chimpanzees”—a catch-all term he says lawmakers made up to be broad enough to include chimps “that were subsidised in some measure by the federal government.”

NYU’s LEMSIP received no NIH funding before it shut down in 1997, and there is no federal law that requires NYU to support its former chimps’ care in retirement. The school hasn’t offered to help cover the costs of the LEMSIP chimps, says Erika Fleury, director of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance, a coalition of primate sanctuaries. 

“We had some people say, How come NYU isn't contributing? and my answer to that is, I don't know … We don't have the ability to chase down NYU funding,” even though “it might make sense morally for them to contribute.” 

NYU declined to comment for this story.

Life in a ghost sanctuary

Chimpanzees, like humans, need stimulation. Wildlife Waystation’s chimps “used to see a lot of people”—tour groups, volunteers, maintenance workers, caretakers—says board member Kate Thompson. Now that the staff is down to nine, “these guys have been bored.” 

As Thompson and caretaker Anher Flores show me and photographer Annie Musselman around one enclosure, eight chimps watch us intently and then—gleefully, it seems—spit mouthfuls of water at us. With what looks like a devilish glint in her eye, a chimp named Inky launches a water blast at Flores, but the other chimps stop spitting when they see him. He’s looked after animals at the sanctuary for 32 years, since he was 17. “I never had any other job,” he says.

Flores identifies at a glance who’s who: There’s the politician, the diva, the troublemaker, the brainiac, the loner. He warns us to back away from the fencing—they’ll grab you, he says, and some caretakers have lost fingers. But Flores doesn’t follow his own advice: He scratches bellies through the fence and hands out apple juice boxes. “They don’t dare to grab me,” he says. 

The chimps get two meals a day, supplemented by snacks: sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts, various fruits including oranges, peaches, and apple juice. Flores reminisces about sharing his lunchtime sandwich with Jeff, a chimp who’s nearly 50 years old and is the peacemaker in his group. Jeff, ever the performer, poses for Musselman, glancing over his shoulder and lounging on the floor. 

LEMSIP veterinarian Jim Mahoney performs a checkup on a chimpanzee in 1996.
Photograph by Steve Winter

“Bang! Bang!” Flores says. Jeff falls to the ground, playing dead. Then he ambles over to the fence, gesturing. 

“What do you want? Flores asks. “Juice? Go clean the cage—look how messy it is! Get the trash.” 

Obediently, Jeff collects discarded orange peels and empty juice boxes and slides them under the fence. 

“Ok,” Flores says, relenting. “I’ll give you juice for that.” 

Jeff hugs himself, then points at Flores. 

Flores hugs himself back. “Love,” he says to Jeff.  

Life in the laboratory

About a dozen aluminum cages sit in an abandoned lion enclosure at Wildlife Waystation. Staff used them to transport animals in emergencies—as when a wildfire breached the property in 2017, and Los Angeles Zoo housed the chimps temporarily. 

I crawl on my knees and poke my head inside a cage. It’s just big enough to stand and turn around in. In the 1990s, each cage, suspended from the ceiling at the LEMSIP lab, held a single chimp, Flores says. The only time the chimps left their confinement was when they were taken to another room for medical experimentation. 

The chimps were never let out? I ask. 

“There was no out,” Flores says. 

In 1995, a dispute over the welfare of LEMSIP’s chimps broke out between New York University and Jan Moor-Jankowski, then the lab’s director. After the university withheld funds requested to increase cage sizes, Moor-Jankowski filed a complaint about the cages with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for enforcing the Animal Welfare Act. Later that year, the university announced that LEMSIP would close. 

More than a hundred of its chimps were transferred to the Coulston Foundation, a private research facility in Alamogordo, New Mexico in 1997. Coulston, which received federal funding from NIH, used its more than 600 chimps—more than any other institution in the world—for toxicology and infectious disease research. 

Coulston had one of the worst animal welfare records of any lab in history, Kleiman says. Between 1995 and 2002, the USDA documented numerous welfare violations at Coulston—everything from temperatures in cages as high as a lethal 150 degrees to insufficient veterinary care to botched medical procedures such as experimental spine surgery, press accounts show. 

In 1995 and 1998, the USDA filed animal welfare charges against the facility for negligence that had caused the deaths of several chimpanzees. In 2002, Coulston ran out of money after the NIH withdrew funding, and the pharmaceutical company Charles River Laboratories took over. Save the Chimps, an accredited sanctuary in Florida, took 266 of Coulston’s chimps; the remaining 287 stayed put in what now is the Alamogordo Primate Facility. 

In the lead-up to LEMSIP’s closure, James Mahoney, the NYU lab’s veterinarian, who knew about Coulston’s reputation for subpar welfare, managed to find homes in sanctuaries for 109 of LEMSIP’s chimps, according to press accounts. That’s how 14 of them got to Wildlife Waystation in 1995 and 1996.

“They were like delinquents when they came here”—grabbing, spitting, and fighting, Flores says. “If you keep a kid in confinement,” he adds, and they suddenly have more freedom, “there’s more things to get into trouble with.

Flores points to Axil, one of the LEMSIP chimps, sitting in a corner by himself, his head resting on his curled black fist, as if he’s brooding. Flores says Axil learned to unwind the chain links in the fence and led his group on five breakouts in the early 2000s. Each time, Flores says, staff lured the chimps back with soda and cookies—and eventually the fence was Axil-proofed. 

At Wildlife Waystation, the chimps’ four chain-link enclosures with concrete flooring, although spartan, provide both shelter and exposure to fresh air and sunlight. Unlike at LEMSIP, where the chimps lived alone in cages indoors, they can romp around, groom each other, and withdraw when they feel the need. 

By the end of the year, all the Wildlife Waystation chimps will be transferred to accredited sanctuaries. Losing the chimps is bittersweet for Flores—but he knows it’s best for them. “It’s like sending your kids to college,” he says. “They’re going to have the closest thing to freedom.”

Life in cramped, sterile confinement traumatises chimpanzees, research shows. They may develop compulsive or self-harming behaviours—such as hair plucking, rocking back and forth, pacing, and eating their own feces. 

In a 2008 study of post-traumatic stress disorder in research chimpanzees, scientists presented two LEMSIP chimps as case studies: Rachel was prone to “violent, angry outbursts” and self-injury, and after seven years in the lab, Jeannie began starving herself, rocking back and forth, screaming, and experiencing seizure-like episodes. “The costs of laboratory-caused trauma are immeasurable,” the paper concludes, leaving a “life-long psychological impact.”

Wildlife Waystation’s money troubles 

“Trying to place two chimpanzees, or five, or 10—it was almost impossible,” Kleiman says of the challenges facing institutions after the government stopped using chimps for medical research. “It was always like, ‘There’s no room at the inn.’” 

According to Thompson, Martine Colette, who founded Wildlife Waystation, could never turn down an animal—especially chimps, and it didn’t require those surrendering their chimps to contribute to their lifelong care. 

“You shouldn’t be legally allowed to have that animal unless there’s a whole plan—you don’t get just get to throw it away,” Thompson says. “These aren't inanimate objects—they’re living, breathing things.” 

When Wildlife Waystation closed, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and various nonprofits filled the financial void. Thompson and one other board member stayed on, volunteering their time. 

The wildlife department covers many expenses—utilities, security, food, water, and emergency needs, such as the time the refrigerator broke down. Ed Pert, the department’s manager for the south coast region, estimates that all this comes to about £65,000 a month, drawn from state taxes.

Thompson says she relies on the generosity of a few private donors, some of whom named the sanctuary as a beneficiary in their estates, to pay the salaries of the nine chimp caretakers. She says they’ve also sold transport cages and other equipment to raise cash. 

It “was the worst experience of my life,” Thompson says of the day the board voted to close the sanctuary. “My house burned down a couple years ago—that is nothing compared to what happened here.” Since then, she’s watched as Wildlife Waystation has fallen into disrepair. “I love this place as much as anybody,” but it's not the best place for the chimps anymore, she says. “Now we're just a holding cell until they move on to a better life.”

Kate Thompson, a Wildlife Waystation board member, relies largely on the generosity of donors to pay the abandoned sanctuary’s nine remaining staff. When the chimps were surrendered, the sanctuary didn’t require their former owners to contribute to their lifelong care. “You shouldn’t be legally allowed to have an animal unless there’s a whole plan—you don’t just get to throw it away,” she says.

Who’s responsible for retired NIH chimps?

Today, five biomedical research facilities across the U.S. hold chimpanzees once used for research that was funded in some part by NIH. 

NIH funds the continuing care of chimps who live in laboratories that were supported by the federal government in fiscal year 2020; any labs that stopped receiving federal funding before then are not covered. The Keeling Centre for Comparative Medicine and Research and the Southwest National Primate Research Center, both in Texas, and the Alamogordo Primate Facility, in New Mexico, house more than a hundred chimps whose care is supported by NIH. 

More than 130 combined chimps also live at two other laboratories—Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Centre, in Georgia, and New Iberia Research Centre, owned by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Though the NIH invested tens of millions of dollars helping Yerkes and New Iberia grow their chimp breeding and research programs, the NIH considers itself not responsible for the chimps’ continued care because federal funding stopped before fiscal year 2020. 

In a statement, the NIH confirmed that it does not fund the care of the chimps remaining at Yerkes and NIRC, but it did not elaborate on the reasoning behind this decision. 

“The government essentially created this issue by breeding these chimpanzees and then deciding that they no longer needed them for research,” says Ed Butler, the executive director of Rise for Animals, which opposes animal experimentation and has campaigned to end chimpanzee research. Ending testing was the right decision, he says, “but they need to go that extra step and release all these animals and pay for their care.” 

What’s next for Wildlife Waystation’s chimps?

The North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance, a coalition of primate sanctuaries, has so far raised more than $3.8 million (£3.1 million) toward its goal of $4.8 million (£3.9 million) for finding new homes for the 18 chimps at Wildlife Waystation. By the end of this year, 11 will go to Chimp Haven in Louisiana, and the other seven to Save the Chimps in Florida. The money, mostly from private donations and grants from environmental groups, will cover the cost of building new housing and funding their long-term care.   

As the sun sinks in the California sky, Flores feeds the chimps their dinner—green pears, juicy red tomatoes, and more apple juice—which some of them spit at us. Losing the chimps is bittersweet for him. “Never in my wildest dreams I thought this would ever happen.” he says, looking around at the empty enclosures and overgrown foliage.

“It’s like sending your kids to college,” he says, watching the chimps drink their juice. “It’s the best thing for them.” Flores takes comfort in the fact that in their new homes, they’ll be able to see the sky unobstructed in open-air yards. “They’re going to have the closest thing to freedom.”  

Will you visit them? I ask. 

I barely have time to finish the question. “Of course,” he says. 

The National Geographic Society supports Wildlife Watch, our investigative reporting project focused on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com. Learn about the National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact


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