Chimpanzees are the only nonhuman, great ape species who have been used in biomedical research, often as models to study behavior and cognitive abilities, test vaccines, and develop treatments for hepatitis. An over-reliance on animal models has hampered translating this research to benefit humans. Chimpanzees cannot be considered a suitable model for statistically relevant investigations due, at the least, to the practical limits on sample size, their unique biological characteristics, and vulnerability to emotional and physical trauma.
However, their use in research has drastically declined in recent years, due in large part to a new policy adopted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In 2013, NIH announced that it would stop funding invasive research using chimpanzees and retire these animals to Chimp Haven, the federal chimpanzee sanctuary in Louisiana. At the time, NIH also said that it would maintain a reserve colony of 50 chimps for possible future use, if a perceived crisis arises.
Even following this NIH policy change, private facilities that did not rely on government funding could still use chimpanzees in research. This was made possible largely due to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) decision to split list chimpanzees, in which the agency considered wild chimpanzees as endangered, but captive chimps as only threatened. The distinction allowed for the continued use of captive chimpanzees in research and entertainment.
In June 2015, FWS announced that captive chimpanzees will be listed as endangered, just as their wild cousins have been since 1990. Anyone owning chimpanzees must acquire a permit from the FWS in order to import, trade, or use them in ways that may cause harm, such as in research, and must show that the work will benefit chimp conservation. Shortly after this policy change at FWS, NIH announced that it was retiring the 50 ‘reserve’ chimpanzees, paving the way for them to also be relocated to Chimp Haven.