WASHINGTON — New federal rules proposed Tuesday would severely restrict medical and behavioral research on chimpanzees and send nearly all of the government’s remaining 450 research chimps into retirement, an unfunded project that could cost $25 million.
The recommendations, which set high hurdles for new studies using chimps, arrive even as research with the apes has grown increasingly rare.
“There is no compelling scientific reason to maintain a large research population,” said Daniel Geschwind, a researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles who co-chaired the working group that made the recommendations to an advisory panel for the National Institutes of Health. “The majority of NIH-owned chimps should be designated for retirement.”
The United States is the only country that keeps chimpanzees for research.
Just two of the 30 current federally funded chimpanzee projects would meet the proposed criteria. Both projects involve infectious diseases or immunology. Seventeen other projects would be allowed if the chimps’ housing conditions were upgraded.
Under the recommendations, researchers would have to meet the proposed rules to receive federal funding. Only studies that could not be done with people or other animals — such as rats, mice or monkeys — would be approved. Ongoing projects would be allowed to finish.
“It’s almost a stranglehold” on new research with chimpanzees, said John Pippin, medical director of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, an animal rights group.
The rules would require large outdoor habitats so the animals could live in social groups, as they would in the wild, with trees or climbing platforms, hay or leaves to build sleeping nests, and plenty of foraging options. No chimpanzee could be isolated in a cage or enclosure without a compelling medical need.
Animal rights groups largely applauded the proposal. “These recommendations reinforce what the public has been asking for, which is a move away from invasive research and getting chimps to sanctuaries,” said Kathleen Conlee, vice president of the Humane Society of the United States.