Dozens of chimpanzees from a Dutch laboratory face a housing crisis after plans for their early retirement on the Spanish coast collapsed because of residents' fears they would carry infectious diseases.
The simian saga illustrates the dilemma of what to do with research chimps as more countries decide it is no longer acceptable to use humankind's closest genetic relative for experiments.
The Dutch government agreed to pay for 39 healthy chimps to move to a proposed state-of-the-art facility near the town of Relleu, Spain. The center, to be built on 100 acres of land, was to feature trees, play structures, and housing with shady areas underneath.
But Relleu has refused to grant a permit because residents fear the chimps carry diseases. Pleas from the Spanish regional government, and a visit in July from chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall, failed to sway town officials.
"We are in trouble, that's for sure," said David van Gennep, director of Stichting AAP, the Dutch primate shelter behind the proposed move.
The 39 chimps "could end up spread around the world. But we're not willing to accept having them put them down," he said.
Chimps can be traumatized if separated or combined with other groups. Caring for them is also costly, and high-quality zoos are reluctant to accept laboratory chimps because they may have developed psychological problems.
The 39 chimps were part of a major colony living at the Biomedical Primate Research Center in 2002, when the Dutch government forbade any further testing on chimpanzees after trials already in progress ended.
New Zealand and Britain have made similar decisions under pressure from animal rights groups.
The U.S. Congress voted in 2000 to allow primate testing to continue, but with restrictions. That same year, the government also put aside $24 million to fund a centralized refuge for laboratory chimps in Shreveport, La., that will eventually house 300 former research chimps.
Europe has no such facility, and funding is another problem.
At the Dutch center, which was Europe's last remaining lab using chimps for research, 70 other healthy chimps have been sold or promised to seven different European zoos and animal centers of mostly high standards.
But one of those projects has run into funding trouble and may not be ready to receive its 20 chimps in time.
High costs to house chimps
Another 23 infected with HIV and hepatitis C will be housed at a closed facility in the Netherlands.
In Austria, the U.S.-based Baxter International Inc. sold a group of 46 former research chimps from its private research laboratory to a safari park in 2003.
But the Ganserndorf Safari Park has gone bankrupt and those chimps are in danger of being sold by curators to the highest bidder, including low-quality zoos, or research laboratories in Asia, where primate research is still allowed.
Earlier this year, the Dutch health minister threatened to halt the Spanish move when he heard it would cost the government about $16,000 per chimp per year, more than some humans get in social security benefits.
Health Minister Hans Hoogervorst, who took office after the 2002 settlement was reached, described the cost as "rather insane" during a period of budget cuts.
"They can just be put into Dutch zoos, right? Maybe it's not Marbella (a Spanish resort), but it's not a bad life, right?" he said.
Van Gennep said the plan did not entail needless luxury: Spain's warmer climate and cheaper living costs made it more affordable than keeping the chimps in rainy Holland.
By comparison, housing the 23 infected chimps in the Netherlands will cost about $53,000 per animal a year.
Hoogervorst later dropped his objections.
"People have the feeling that they've done a great good by ending experimentation, but there's not enough space for more chimps in existing facilities," Van Gennep said.
"This is a problem around Europe, and it needs a central solution."