Move of 14 older chimps to Texas research lab raises questions

August 13, 2011

Infected with hepatitis C and HIV, suffering from chronic heart failure and living under a do-not-resuscitate order, Ken, 29, sits at the center of the battle over chimpanzee medical research.

Last summer, the National Institutes of Health moved Ken and 13 other older chimps from a retirement facility in New Mexico to an active research laboratory in San Antonio, the Texas Biomedical Research Institute (formerly known as the Southwest Foundation for Medical Research).

Activists say that the apes are too old and sick for research. They say the chimps should be removed from Texas Biomed.

“We’re claiming that this is not a well-managed, safe, reliable facility for handling these animals,” said John Pippin, a cardiologist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which promotes alternatives to animal research.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which enforces laws governing care of laboratory animals, is investigating Texas Biomed, said agency spokesman Dave Sacks.

In 2009 and 2010, USDA investigators found 14 violations of the Animal Welfare Act at the facility, agency documents show. Two of the violations were deemed “serious”: A baboon briefly escaped its enclosure, as did a rhesus monkey, which “gained access to an outdoor area of the enclosure at night when temperatures were below freezing.” Institute staff found the monkey “moribund” and euthanized it.

Sacks said that USDA has the authority to relocate Ken and any other chimp “if the animal is in state of unrelieved suffering. It would have to be a pretty special case.”

A Texas Biomed official countered that the violations “have nothing to do with chimpanzees or the areas where the chimpanzees are housed.” John Bernal, a veterinarian and associate director for research resources at the unit of Texas Biomed that houses the chimps — the Southwest National Primate Research Center — continued: “We take any USDA violation or citation very seriously. We systemically go through our program and decide what it is that is needed to be done to rectify the citations.”

As for Ken and the 13 other chimpanzees that sparked the high-level debate over ape research, Bernal said none are currently being used in medical studies.

— Brian Vastag

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