WASHINGTON—Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit dismissed the National Institutes of Health’s appeal of a federal court ruling that the agency broke the law by withholding sanctuary retirement from federally owned chimpanzees formerly used in research. The appeal was dismissed at NIH’s request.

In 2021, the Humane Society of the United States, Animal Protection New Mexico, Humane Society Legislative Fund and three individual plaintiffs sued NIH after the agency reneged on its commitment to sanctuary retirement for all chimps owned or supported by the federal government. Instead, NIH decided to retain dozens of chimps at the Alamogordo Primate Facility—the same New Mexico laboratory where they were previously used in experiments—for the remainder of their lives. Twenty-six chimps currently remain at the Alamogordo facility.

In December 2022, a Maryland federal judge held that NIH’s decision was unlawful under the Chimpanzee Health, Improvement, Maintenance and Protection (CHIMP) Act, a 2000 law that created and funded the federal chimpanzee sanctuary system. NIH initially appealed that ruling but last week abandoned the appeal, meaning the lower court’s ruling stands and the chimpanzees cannot lawfully be denied sanctuary retirement.

“We have been working unrelentingly on behalf of the Alamogordo chimpanzees—who suffered in invasive biomedical research for decades,” said Kathleen Conlee, vice president of animal research issues for the Humane Society of the United States. “We are thrilled that the judicial process confirmed what we have been telling NIH for years: it cannot lawfully refuse to move these chimps to sanctuary.”

The December 2022 ruling explained that “the plain and unambiguous language of the CHIMP Act mandates the transfer of all [Alamogordo] chimpanzees to [the federal sanctuary].” A subsequent order from the same federal judge directed NIH to comply with the CHIMP Act’s requirements.

Gene Grant, chief program and policy officer-animals in science for Animal Protection New Mexico, stated, “Moving forward, we are grateful for this outcome and also encouraged that National Institutes of Health Director, Dr. Monica Bertagnolli, stated during her confirmation hearings last fall that she supports sanctuary for the 26 remaining chimpanzees at the Alamogordo Primate Facility in New Mexico.”

Dr. Bertagnolli’s statement came in response to a Question for the Record from New Mexico Sen. Ben Ray Luján, where she wrote in part, "...I am committed to carrying out the goals of the CHIMP Act to ensure that these chimpanzees get the sanctuary and care they deserve."

"The Director’s leadership and vision are noteworthy and represent a renewed opportunity for the federal government to fulfill its statutory obligation to provide permanent sanctuary to New Mexico’s chimpanzees,” said Elisabeth Jennings, executive director of Animal Protection New Mexico.

Due to advances in non-animal methods of research and testing, and changes in their legal status under the Endangered Species Act, chimpanzees have not been used in federally sponsored research since 2015. Before issuing the decision challenged in the lawsuit, NIH had previously declared all remaining federally owned chimpanzees, including the Alamogordo chimps, eligible for retirement to Chimp Haven, the federal sanctuary. Chimp Haven provides former research chimps with superior veterinary and behavioral care and an open, natural living environment while also saving taxpayer dollars.

“Now that the appeal has been dismissed at NIH’s request, a real retirement is on the horizon for the Alamogordo chimpanzees,” said Tracie Letterman, vice president of federal affairs for Humane Society Legislative Fund. “We look forward to NIH’s transfer of the chimpanzees to sanctuary where they can finally live out their days outside of the confines of a laboratory.”

All plaintiffs are represented by attorneys in the Animal Protection Law department of the Humane Society of the United States.

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