Chimpanzees in Research Get Shortchanged on Space

On April 4, 2014, in a Notice of Agency Decision, NIH announced its new requirement regarding the minimum floor space required for each of the remaining chimpanzees in NIH-supported research (see "Summer 2013 AWI Quarterly). NIH’s Council of Councils Working Group on the Use of Chimpanzees in NIH-Supported Research (Working Group) had originally recommended 1,000 ft2 per chimpanzee. This recommendation, however, was rejected.

In the Notice, NIH justified its rejection by citing concerns about the expected costs of implementation, as well as about the scientific basis of the recommendation. The agency elected to embark on a further assessment, which included consulting with experts and commissioning a review of available literature about space requirements. The consulted individuals all were research scientists and veterinarians associated with large primate research facilities—facilities that might be expected to oppose any space-expansion requirements for the chimpanzees.

The NIH assessment did not find published data to support the original 1000 ft2 per chimpanzee recommendation and noted an urgent need for further research to quantify the space needs of chimpanzees. NIH apparently chose to ignore what the Working Group gleaned from its visits to chimpanzee sanctuaries that provide larger living space, including what it learned about their “considerable success” in forming large, stable social groups of more than 25 individuals. This hands-on, real-life evidence appears to have played a significant role in the Working Group’s recommendation. Of particular note, the Working Group stated that cost was not sufficient justification for keeping chimpanzees in ethologically inappropriate environments.

Based upon its interpretation of the literature review and additional input, NIH decided that the primary living space of the chimpanzees should be “at least 250 ft2 per chimpanzee,” one-quarter of the Working Group’s recommended minimum. AWI does not agree with this finding and urges NIH to reconsider its decision. It would appear that the 250 ft2 requirement is arbitrary, particularly in light of the acknowledgement of an urgent need for further research to quantify space requirements.