What is life like for chimpanzees in laboratories?

There are dramatic differences between the way chimpanzees live in the wild and the way chimpanzees are forced to live in laboratories. In the wild, chimpanzees live in very diverse social groups and may travel several miles in one day. But in laboratories, chimpanzees can live alone in cold, metal cages that are about the size of a closet (5’x5’x7’) for days, weeks or even months on end, with no opportunities to exhibit natural behaviors, such as foraging, nest building and social grooming. This type of confinement and isolation can cause severe problems in chimpanzees, such as depression, heightened aggression, frustration and even self-mutilation. In addition to solitary housing, chimpanzees used in research are often subjected to painful and distressing procedures, including liver biopsies, human virus infections and frequent "knockdowns," in which a chimpanzee is shot with a tranquilizer gun. To see examples of the type of suffering endured by chimpanzees and other primates, read our executive summary of the undercover investigation of the New Iberia Research Center [PDF], the world’s largest chimpanzee laboratory. 

To better understand how different life is for chimpanzees in sanctuaries, watch this video about a group of elderly chimpanzees experiencing their new life at Chimp Haven, the national chimpanzee sanctuary, after decades at New Iberia.

It’s important to note that at any given time, the majority of chimpanzees in laboratories are not being used in research and are simply being warehoused, often at taxpayers' expense. Unfortunately, even when not being used in research, simply being confined in a laboratory setting can cause chimpanzees to experience anxiety and fear, which often results from seeing other chimpanzees undergo procedures without knowing if the same thing will happen to them next. 

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Which laboratories house chimpanzees for use in invasive research?

There are currently five laboratories in the United States that house hundreds of chimpanzees for use in invasive research. Those labs are:

  • Alamogordo Primate Facility (Alamogordo, NM)
  • MD Anderson Cancer Center (Bastrop, Texas)
  • New Iberia Research Center (New Iberia, LA)
  • Southwest National Primate Research Center (San Antonio, Texas)
  • Yerkes National Primate Research Center (Atlanta, GA)

Each of the five laboratories can use the chimpanzees in their care in their own research and/or contract with outside organizations to perform research on the chimpanzees. The exception is Alamogordo Primate Facility, from which any of the other four chimpanzee laboratories can request chimpanzees be transferred for use in research; however, no research is allowed at the Alamogordo facility. Once a chimpanzee is removed from the Alamogordo facility, he or she cannot return.

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Do we need to use chimpanzees to find cures for human illnesses and diseases? 

Because chimpanzees are our closest genetic relative, scientists once thought that they would be valuable in the study of human diseases, such as HIV. However, the small genetic differences between chimpanzees and humans cause chimps to react to human illnesses in significantly different ways than we do. Thus, chimpanzees are not a reliable model of human disease. In fact, in December of 2011, a groundbreaking report by the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council found that most biomedical and behavioral research on chimpanzees is unnecessary and could not identify any area of current biomedical research for which chimpanzee use is essential. Further, the report pointed to several available alternatives to chimpanzee use and called for increased investment in the development of additional alternative research methods.

The United States is the only developed country in the world that continues to use chimpanzees in invasive experiments. Several countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Japan and all of the European Union member states have banned or strictly limited the use of great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans and gorillas) in research. In addition, several pharmaceutical companies—including GlaxoSmithKline, Gilead Sciences, Novo Nordisk and Idenix Pharmaceuticals—have adopted policies against the use of chimpanzees in research.

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Who pays for research on chimpanzees? 

Prior to the Institute of Medicine report on chimpanzee research, which found that most biomedical and behavioral research on chimpanzees is unnecessary and pointed to several alternatives to chimpanzee use, U.S. taxpayers spent an estimated $20-25 million each year on experiments involving chimpanzees and on their care. The estimated expense of simply maintaining one chimpanzee in a laboratory is $60 per day compared to approximately $44 per day at the national chimpanzee sanctuary. The government will save an estimated $15-20 million per year if invasive research is ended and the remaining 420 government-owned chimpanzees in laboratories are retired to sanctuary. Retiring chimpanzees to sanctuary not only saves taxpayer money, it also provides chimpanzees a much higher standard of care by allowing them to live in a more natural setting where they have more opportunities to climb, play, forage, build nests and socialize.

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Why should we give chimpanzees special attention?

There is overwhelming evidence that chimpanzees exhibit a range of emotions, including pleasure, depression, anxiety, pain, distress, empathy and grief. They are very social, highly intelligent and proficient in using tools (e.g. using sticks to fish for termites and rocks to crack open hard nutshells), solving problems, using numbers and can even be taught American Sign Language. Their suffering under laboratory conditions cannot be refuted.

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What is causing the recent decline in the use of chimpanzees for research?

Fortunately, the scientific community and others have decreased the use of chimpanzees both nationally and internationally due to:

  • Unsuitability of chimpanzees for the purposes of researching human diseases.
  • Availability of alternative research methods.
  • Serious ethical concerns.
  • High costs of keeping chimpanzees in laboratories.
  • Increase in public pressure to end invasive testing and retire chimpanzees.

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Is the public supportive of an end to harmful research on chimpanzees? 

Opinion polls indicate growing public concern regarding the use of chimpanzees in experiments:

  • More than half of all Americans believe that it is unacceptable for chimpanzees to “undergo research which causes them to suffer for human benefit.” 
  • Seventy-one percent of the American public thought that chimpanzees used in research for more than 10 years should be retired and 74 percent would support permanent retirement to sanctuaries for chimpanzees no longer used in experiments. 

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What can I do to help chimpanzees in laboratories and sanctuaries?

There are many things you can do to support these chimpanzees:

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