Humane Society of the U.S. sues National Institutes of Health over outcome of “CHIMP Act” claimed as HSUS “victory”
ALAMOGORDO, New Mexico; SHREVEPORT, Louisiana; BLUE RIDGE, Georgia––“Nestled in the pines near Keithville,” 17 miles south of Shreveport, Louisiana, the 200-acre Chimp Haven sanctuary “even has 11 new residents as part of a $20 million expansion campaign,” reported Nate Fluharty for KTBS television on January 23, 2021.
Explained Chimp Haven president Rana Smith to Fluharty, “Chimp Haven is home to over 300 chimpanzees, most of whom were used in biological research. Back in 2015 the federal government ended [chimp use in] biomedical and research and designated Chimp Haven as the place where they would retire.”
Chimps waiting for 17 years
National Institutes of Health director Francis S. Collins actually made the announcement that the then-350 chimpanzees in federally owned laboratories would be sent to Chimp Haven in June 2013.
Most of the few federally owned chimps previously retired from experimental use had either been kept in laboratory colonies funded by the National Institutes of Health, or––like Ham the space chimp––were sent to the National Zoo in Washington D.C., to live out their lives on exhibit.
But not all of the federally owned chimpanzees whom Congress and Collins meant to go to Chimp Haven actually got there.
The delay, wrote Washington Post environment reporter Daryl Fears in February 2016, came about because, “When lawmakers approved the Chimpanzee Health Improvement Maintenance and Protection of 2000, which designated Chimp Haven as a federal sanctuary and provided millions of dollars to the National Institutes of Health to care for retired chimps, they stipulated that no [federal] funds could be used to expand the facility.”
At least 24 federally owned chimpanzees died, according to Fears’ count, before expansion funds for Chimp Haven became available.
Slow going for chimps once flown at supersonic speeds
Even when money for expanding Chimp Haven was raised and allocated, accommodating all of the chimpanzees in need of sanctuary space was slow going.
Six years after Collins first decreed that all federally owned chimpanzees would be retired to Chimp Haven, National Institutes of Health director Collins in October 2019 told media that 44 chimps who were previously scheduled to be transferred from the Alamogordo Primate Research Facility in New Mexico to Chimp Haven would instead remain in Alamogordo because they had become too old to move safely.
“The Right Stuff”
Built at on Holloman Air Force Base in 1954, the Alamogordo Primate Facility originally housed chimpanzees used in U.S. Air Force and National Aeronautics & Space Administration [NASA] experiments.
Some of those experiments were briefly depicted in the 1983 film The Right Stuff, based on the 1979 Tom Wolfe book The Right Stuff.
The Alamogordo Primate Facility also inspired the 1987 film Project X, starring Matthew Broderick.
From 650 down to 37
At peak, the Alamogordo Primate Research Facility housed approximately 650 chimps, under management of the Coulston Foundation, formed by primatologist Frederick Coulston. The Coulston Foundation owned about half of the chimps and facilities; the rest belonged to the U.S. Air Force and NASA.
The Alamogordo Primate Facility chimp population was thinned somewhat by deaths before the 34 surviving NASA chimps were in 1999 retired to the Primarily Primates sanctuary, near San Antonio, Texas.
Save The Chimps
When the Coulston Foundation declared bankruptcy in 2003, the late Save The Chimps founder Carole Noon bought the Coulston buildings and land, with the aid of $3.7 million from the Arcus Foundation, and acquired 266 animals, mostly chimps, as part of the deal.
The National Institutes of Health took over responsibility for the 288 former U.S. Air Force chimps then left at the Alamogordo Primate Facility, a colony now diminished by retirement transfers and deaths to just 37.
“Morally & fiscally incumbent”
The care-taking duties were contracted out to Charles River Laboratories, a Massachusetts-based multinational company believed to be the world’s largest supplier of animals to biomedical researchers.
Editorialized the Albuquerque Journal on January 4, 2021, “It is morally and fiscally incumbent on each of us to demand that the National Institutes of Health finally send [these] chimps to sanctuary.”
Observed the Albuquerque Journal editorialists, “Christmas week saw a group of 14 that included Alamogordo Primate Facility chimps move into the [new] $20 million forested addition at Chimp Haven, a public-private partnership funded in part with your tax dollars. That last part is important, because the National Institutes of Health web site says it costs you, the taxpayer, $130 a day to house one chimp in Alamogordo, where there are no trees or wide-open spaces, compared with $35.65 a day at Chimp Haven. Taxpayers are not getting bang for their buck, and sentient beings are suffering for it.
The HSUS lawsuit
“Since October , two additional chimps have been euthanized at Alamogordo, according to Animal Protection of New Mexico,” the Albuquerque Journal continued. “The NIH has refused to transfer the remaining chimps because it maintains they are too medically fragile to survive the trip (though its own modeling has them living to 2038 and beyond). Instead, it has euthanized at least four this year.”
The Humane Society of the U.S. on January 14, 2021 joined with Animal Protection of New Mexico in suing the National Institutes of Health in the Federal District Court of Maryland.
“Our lawsuit,” jointly explained HSUS president Kitty Block and Sara Amundson, president of the subsidiary Humane Society Legislative Fund, “would compel NIH to abide by the Chimpanzee Health Improvement Maintenance and Protection (CHIMP) Act,” the HSUS-backed bill which in 2000 simultaneously mandated chimpanzee retirement but blocked use of funds to expand retirement facilities.
Compromised CHIMP Act led to delay
The CHIMP Act was passed amid a political struggle between animal advocacy organizations, who wanted the federally owned chimps to be retired to nonprofit sanctuaries beyond control of the National Institutes of Health, and the NIH it`self, which argued that it should manage the chimp retirement facilities and should receive the funding apportioned for chimp retirement.
The National Institutes also wanted to retain the ability to recall chimpanzees from retirement at will, for further use in experiments.
By the time CHIMP Act cleared Congress, toward the very end of the 2000 legislative session, the NIH had almost everything it wanted.
The only thing NIH did not have, memos leaked to ANIMALS 24-7 indicated at the time, was a crushing humiliation of animal rights groups. Most of the major national animal advocacy organizations had already sent out mass mailings in support of the CHIMP Act, and could thereby claim “victory” if the CHIMP Act passed in any form, no matter how distorted by late amendments.
“We’re not talking about chimp sanctuaries any longer,” the late chimpanzee advocate Linda Howard (1956-2006) warned. “We’re talking about off-site storage.”
In Defense of Animals withdrew support of the Chimp Retirement Act on October 25, 2000. Friends of Animals circulated a statement of opposition by then-Rutgers University law professor Gary Francione on November 6, 2000.
But the Humane Society of the U.S., the Animal Welfare Institute, primate anthropologist Jane Goodall, and Nonhuman Rights Project founder Stephen M. Wise, among others, continued to support the amended CHIMP Act as the best that they thought could be obtained, setting up the “retirement” boondoggle underway ever since.
Argued Block and Amundson in their jointly written January 14, 2021 statement, without reference to the defects in the CHIMP Act, “Congress, in passing the law, recognized our nation’s moral responsibility to provide lifetime care for these animals in the best possible environment. By not retiring the chimpanzees at the Alamogordo Primate Facility to sanctuary,” Block and Amundson alleged, “the NIH is not just deserting this moral responsibility, it is also in clear violation of U.S. law.
“What’s more,” Block and Amundson said, “the NIH argument that the chimps would be at risk in the event of a transfer just doesn’t make sense. Of the hundreds of chimpanzees of all ages and health conditions who have moved from laboratories to Chimp Haven, not one has died during transport.”
No mention of Project Chimps
Of note, Block and Amundson in their January 14, 2021 joint statement did not try to make a case––not directly, anyway––that the chimpanzees remaining in Alamogordo, or elsewhere in federal custody, should be transferred to the embattled Project Chimps sanctuary in Blue Ridge, Georgia.
What is Project Chimps?
“Founded just six years ago,” recounted Science magazine online news editor David Grimm on December 2, 2020, “Project Chimps made a name for itself by promising to retire more than 200 chimpanzees—about one-third of all ex–research chimps at the time—from a major biomedical facility,” specifically the New Iberia Research Center operated by the University of Louisiana.
Project Chimps opened in 2016 on a six-acre portion of the 236-acre former Dewar Wildlife Trust gorilla sanctuary. The facility had housed three gorillas between 1997 and 2015.
Currently Project Chimps has 78 chimps from the New Iberia Research Center, and is slated to receive 123 more.
Although Project Chimps and the Humane Society of the U.S. are technically separate entities, Internal Revenue Service Form 990 filings document that in 2018 nearly $3.9 million was involved in “intercompany activity” between HSUS and Project Chimps.
This included $2,566,145 in cash transfers from HSUS to Project Chimps, $1,008,979 in program grants from HSUS to Project Chimps, and $106,783 in salaries paid by HSUS for Project Chimps-related work.
In 2019 HSUS sent Project Chimps program grant funding of $1,118,833, $753,883 in cash transfers, and paid $110,129 in salaries for Project Chimps-related work.
Project Chimps operates on an annual budget of about $3 million and has about $7 million in net assets, according to IRS Form 990.
“New leadership is desperately needed”
Complaints about the care and conditions afforded to chimpanzees at Project Chimps continue to surface, more than five months after the HSUS-backed sanctuary on August 14, 2020 dropped an attempt to sue former chimpanzee caregivers and whistleblowers Crystal Alba and Lindsay Vanderhooght.
A chimp named Gertrude, blogged San Francisco-based independent primatologist Robert Ingersoll on January 21, 2021, “ was just diagnosed with cancer after years of Project Chimps ignoring very alarming symptoms. A tumor the size of an eggplant has been found in her pelvic region. Leadership at Project Chimps claims there was no way to know Gertrude had a tumor before her exam and there was nothing they could have done anyway.
“Based on first-hand whistleblower accounts, however,” Ingersoll charged, “Project Chimps did know that something was very wrong for over a year while they actively decided to ignore it. This is why new leadership is desperately needed. All the changes in the world do not matter if leaders are not in place to properly enforce them.”
Ingersoll has consulted for chimpanzee retirement projects around the world for more than 30 years.
“Inadequate vet care, insufficient access to the outdoors, & inexperienced staff”
Blogged New York City film maker Donny Moss a month earlier, on December 15, 2020, “A highly anticipated ‘Chimp Welfare Assessment’ conducted by renowned primatologist Steve Ross documented inadequate veterinary care, insufficient access to the outdoors and an inexperienced staff at Project Chimps.”
The assessment, Moss wrote, funded by the Arcus Foundation, was done in November 2020 “in response to public outcry generated by evidence of animal cruelty posted on HelpTheChimps.org” by Alba and Vanderhoogt.
“According to the whistleblowers,” Moss reported, “the experience level is low because Project Chimps has fired several highly experienced veterinarians and caregivers who voiced concerns about welfare issues ,” including Alba and Vanderhoogt, “and replaced them with junior, inexperienced and malleable staff members. Project Chimps claims that inexperienced staffers can learn on the job, but the whistleblowers note that the organization no longer employs experienced managers who can adequately train junior staff.”
Three times more chimps per villa than optimal
The Ross assessment gave Project Chimps a score of 81 points on a scale of 100, but Project Chimps fared much worse in the aspects of chimpanzee care that are expected to be much better at a sanctuary than a laboratory.
Project Chimps, for example, houses chimpanzees in “villas” that, according to Animal Welfare Act regulations written with laboratories in mind, can accommodate up to 45 chimps each.
Ross found that 15 chimps per “villa” would be optimal.
Uses six of 236 acres
“According to the whistleblowers,” wrote Moss, “the 78 chimpanzees have access to [outdoor] habitat for approximately 10 hours per week. They spend the remainder of the time in concrete enclosures. Even before Project Chimps creates the planned additional yards on its 236-acre property, it could, according to former staffers [Alba and Vanderhoogt], increase outdoor time for all of the chimps in the current habitat if management made it a priority.”
The underlying issue is that Project Chimps has yet to expand significantly beyond the original footprint of the DeWar Wildlife Trust gorilla facilities.
Opined Grimm to ANIMALS 24-7, “Based on my reporting and my visit to Project Chimps, I think money is a major issue, not just for them, but for all sanctuaries. Raising just $100,000 at this point––and in this environment––is a major push, regardless of what the funds will be used for. So I think that any major project, especially one likely to cost millions of dollars, is not realistic.”
But according to IRS Form 990, the Humane Society of the U.S. had net assets of $266 million, going into 2020, with annual income of nearly $125 million.
By the end of 2020, ANIMALS 24-7 was told by an inside source, HSUS had laid off about 40 employees due to a fundraising shortfall associated perhaps with COVID-19, but perhaps also due in part to donor disillusionment with the widely publicized failure of Project Chimps to live up to expectations built by HSUS publicity.