Montessa, a 46-year-old chimpanzee, has been through a lot. The first record of her life is the note that she was purchased, when she was about a year old, from an importer in 1975 for the research colony in New Mexico at the Holloman Air Force Base. She’s still there.
It’s now called the Alamogordo Primate Facility, and Montessa, who was probably born in the wild and captured for sale, is one of 39 chimpanzees living in limbo there, all of them the property of the National Institutes of Health.
Over the past 45 years, Montessa has been pregnant five times and given birth four times. Publicly available records don’t show much about what kind of experiments were performed on her, but she was involved in a hormone study one year and in two other years underwent a number of liver biopsies.
When Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the NIH, decided in 2015 that all federally owned chimps would be permanently retired from research, it seemed that Montessa might get a chance to wander around on the grass at Chimp Haven in Louisiana, the designated and substantially NIH-supported sanctuary.
No such luck.
The retirement plan had one caveat: Any chimpanzees considered too frail to be moved because of age, illness or both would stay at Alamogordo. They would no longer be subject to experiments, they were supposed to be housed in groups of seven or more, and they would have access to outdoor space and behavioral stimulation (toys, for example).
But a year ago, the NIH decided that Montessa and 38 other chimpanzees could not move to Chimp Haven, relying on Alamogordo staff recommendations that the chimps, many with diabetes or heart disease, would suffer and might even die if they were transferred to the sanctuary.
Animal welfare activists and congressional lawmakers have demanded that Collins revisit the decision. They argue that care at Alamogordo is not what it should be, with group sizes too small, guidelines for euthanasia set too low and information and transparency about the chimpanzees' lives and deaths lacking.
Montessa is said to have heart issues, although the available medical records leave that open to dispute, according to Laura Bonar, chief program and policy officer at Animal Protection of New Mexico.
She and other animal welfare activists are not satisfied with assessments by the Alamogordo staff or by the way NIH made its decision. A panel of NIH veterinarians accepted all the recommendations of the Alamogordo staff after reviewing records. They did not visit the facility, nor did they examine any of the chimpanzees.
Not only animal welfare groups but also congressional lawmakers denounced the decision, and several wrote a letter urging the NIH to reverse course, review the process and find a way to move the chimps.
But James Anderson, the director of the NIH Division of Program Coordination, Planning and Strategic Initiatives, who is in charge of NIH support of chimpanzees, rejected requests to revisit the decision.
“No, NIH will not review or reconsider the process,” Anderson said in an email. “The determinations of the panel are final. Animals will not be further assessed regarding relocation.”
In short, the chimps now at Alamogordo will die at Alamogordo.
For those who favor Chimp Haven as a destination for all retired chimpanzees, as originally planned in its founding, the situation of the 39 animals is an agonizing coda to what had seemed an improbable romance that began 10 years ago with the very same chimpanzees.
In 2010, the chimps at Alamogordo hadn’t been used in medical research for a decade. They were informally if not officially retired as experimental animals, although still on-site. Then the NIH started moving some of them to another lab in Texas to become part of the research population again.
An outcry over that move led Collins, head of the NIH, to begin a review that resulted in ending the use of chimps for any biomedical research.
Collins stated that chimpanzees are our closest relatives and “deserving of special attention,” and activists embraced what seemed to many of them an act of courage. Kathleen Conlee, vice president for animal research at the Humane Society of the United States, said, “I’ll always think of Dr. Collins as having a legacy of doing what’s right by the chimps.”
She’s not so sure any longer, now that the agency has reneged on its pledge to retire the animals at Chimp Haven. The chimps, she said, “deserve that opportunity after all they’ve been through.”
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., is more blunt: “NIH has dropped the ball.” An advocate of the chimps' well-being for more than 10 years, the senator added, “I don’t have any faith that the NIH is using taxpayer resources wisely for the humane treatment of these chimps.”
According to the most recent NIH information on the cost of maintaining chimpanzees, the agency spent about $7.6 million in the 2019 fiscal year. Udall and Animal Protection of New Mexico say the NIH pays Alamogordo roughly three times what it pays Chimp Haven, which is around $42 a day per chimp. The NIH offered a different calculation, based on a nine-year average rather than 2019, putting the Alamogordo cost at about $75 a day, and Chimp Haven at about $45 a day in federal funds, with another $15 per day raised by Chimp Haven from donations.
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., another supporter of chimp retirement, said she was “deeply disappointed” in Collins' actions. The lab facility cannot meet the “complex physical and psychological needs of the chimpanzees,” she said, and she urged Collins to “do the humane thing and release these chimpanzees to sanctuary.”
There is no question that the lives of the Alamogordo chimps have improved since the days when they were medical research subjects, subject to biopsies and other procedures as Montessa was. The chimps now are with caretakers and veterinarians who have looked after them for years.
But information in real time about their well-being is difficult to unearth. Bonar, of Animal Protection of New Mexico, has had to file Freedom of Information requests to get some medical records and obtained others through congressional staff members.
One of her biggest criticisms of Alamogordo is the quality of care for the chimps, particularly at the end of life.
Katherine Cronin, a primatologist and animal welfare scientist at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, reviewed records obtained by the New Mexico group and reported that all of the chimp groups had fewer than seven members (the minimum recommended by an NIH report in 2013). Despite guidelines saying no chimpanzee “should be required to live alone for extended periods of time,” Cronin said one animal was housed alone for six months.
She described the situation of “Danny, a 37-year-old male who was moved to the ‘sick room’ and isolated” after it was observed that he had lost weight, was moving slowly and was losing interest in food. That was Nov. 12. “The next day,” she wrote, “he was reported to be poorly responsive to the environment and refusing food, and was euthanized.”
She said that the practice of isolating sick chimps could lead to depression and exacerbate the loss of appetite.
The federal government has a contract with Charles River Laboratories, which employs the veterinarians and other staff members at the Alamogordo facility. Amy Cianciaruso, corporate vice president for communications at Charles River, wrote in an email, “As you know, the facility is an NIH facility, so the NIH is responsible for all decision-making and administrative management.”
Although the agency has approved the protocols for euthanasia, decisions are in the hands of the Alamogordo veterinarians.
Lori Gruen, a philosopher at Wesleyan University who writes about animal welfare and chimpanzees in particular, said that the lack of outside oversight of the care of taxpayer-owned chimpanzees, particularly end-of-life care, was a major problem. Those decisions for chimpanzees should not be made only by veterinarians, she said.
“There are deeper ethical issues” that go beyond physical health, she said.
The quality of life for a chimpanzee should be discussed from different points of view, perhaps by a committee, she suggested. “If you have end-of-life conversations with a group of caregivers, and ethicists and veterinarians, you can feel justified in the decision,” she said.
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