01/05/2011 05:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Reprieve for New Mexico Chimps

I wrote in July about a misguided federal agency plan to transfer about 200 government-owned chimpanzees from a warehouse facility in New Mexico to an active research laboratory in Texas -- and now I can convey some good news on this front. Rene Romo of the Albuquerque Journal broke the story on New Year's Eve that the National Institutes of Health had placed the chimp transfer on hold, and instead would wait for a National Academy of Sciences review of policies related to chimps in research.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who had been advocating for the protection of these animals and urging the agency to convert the Alamogordo facility to a permanent chimp sanctuary, received the welcome word on his last day in office. "This is great news for the chimpanzees and the people of Alamogordo," he said. "I have worked hard to stop the transfer of the chimpanzees, and I am pleased that one of the last phone calls I received as governor was the NIH letting me know that they have agreed to this study."

NIH confirmed the decision in a statement yesterday, noting that "Alamogordo chimpanzees will not be used in invasive research" during the time of the NAS study. It's a new year, and hopefully a course correction for an agency that has long held fast to the outdated and costly use of chimps in invasive research. The U.S. and Gabon are the only remaining nations to do so.

The federal government has paid a private company $42 million to warehouse the Alamogordo chimps for the past ten years, and millions more to renovate the facility, which is located on an Air Force base. In total, NIH annually spends an estimated $63 million on chimpanzee research and maintenance, keeping these highly intelligent and social creatures in barren but costly laboratory cages. Few of these animals are used in active research, since chimpanzees have largely failed as a research model. Beyond those costs, another $6 million has gone toward breeding chimps since 2002, despite a prohibition against such breeding. Every federally owned chimp born into the system is a $1 million dollar commitment by the government -- with an average cost of $20,000 per chimp annually, and chimps living up to 60 years. It makes financial and moral sense to stop this breeding once and for all and retire chimps to sanctuaries where they live together in natural settings rather than being warehoused.

U.S. Senators Tom Udall, D-N.M., Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., had also written to NAS in December and requested "assistance in determining the extent of the continued need for invasive research on chimpanzees and the merits of alternative methods." We are grateful to these lawmakers for weighing in on the issue, and we expect members of Congress to soon reintroduce the Great Ape Protection Act. This measure to phase out invasive research on chimps had the strong bipartisan support of 161 House and six Senate cosponsors in the last session. At a time when Washington is looking to cut fiscally wasteful programs, here's an opportunity to save chimps and tax dollars.