The last 50 chimpanzees set aside for federal medical research will be retired and sent to a sanctuary because they are no longer needed, the National Institutes of Health said Wednesday night.
No one's applied to use the chimpanzees for 2 ½ years and it appears there is no pressing need to study the apes, the closest genetic relative to humans, NIH director Dr. Francis Collins said.
"There will be no more federally supported research done on chimpanzees. The benefits of that appear to be negligible," Collins told reporters in a telephone briefing.
"This in no way says NIH is in any way backing off on the need to (conduct) research on other non-human primates," Collins added. "This is solely a question of research on chimpanzees."
The chimpanzees, which are kept at three facilities in Texas and New Mexico, will be gradually sent to Chimp Haven sanctuary in Keithville, Louisiana. But Collins said Chimp Haven only has 25 slots open right now.
It could take years to get all the chimpanzees, some of them elderly, transferred to Chimp Haven, he said.
In 2010, the NIH asked the Institute of Medicine to closely look at the scientific need for chimpanzees in NIH research. In December 2011, the IOM said the current use of chimpanzees is generally unnecessary and should be guided by a set of specific principles and procedures.
In 2013, NIH said it would retire all but 50 of approximately 360 chimps. These 50 were held back in case someone needed to do essential research that couldn't be done any other way, Collins said. Then the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared chimpanzees in captivity an endangered species, meaning any experiments would need a permit from that agency.
"It seems inescapable that after 2 1/2 years when there has not been a single request for access to these 50 chimpanzees ... we have moved on from the time when research on chimpanzees was considered essential," Collins said.
"We have made the decision that we will no longer keep those chimpanzees for research."
Collins said the chimpanzees will be kept in their social groups, and that NIH will try to make the moves as stress-free as possible.
Some animal welfare groups, which have lobbied NIH for years, were ecstatic.
"It's rare to close out a category of animal use so emphatically.That's exactly what's happening here, and it's thrilling," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States.
The Humane Society, the Jane Goodall Institute, People for the Ethical treatment of Animals and other groups have long lobbied for NIH to shut down all animal testing.
Last month, PETA sent letters to Collins' neighbors to complain about NIH's use of monkeys in animal experiments.
"I was deeply troubled that PETA would take that tack ... and making it personal by writing to my neighbors," Collins said.
"I think that crosses the line and is deplorable. This is not, not a response in any way to the actions of that organization."