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January 24, 2013

Research chimps may be headed to leisure

NEW ORLEANS — Chimpanzees who have spent their lives in U.S. research labs being prodded, poked and tested may be headed for retirement in a leafy sanctuary where they can climb trees, socialize at will, play with toys and even listen to music.

More than 300 chimpanzees should be retired from government-funded research and sent to live in a sprawling refuge outfitted with play areas under a recommendation approved Tuesday by a top national panel of scientists.

The proposal from a National Institutes of Health committee is the latest step in a gradual shift away from using chimps as test subjects, because of technological advances and because of ethical concerns about their close relation to humans. It would affect all but 50 of more than 350 chimpanzees in labs around the country. The remaining group kept for future federally funded research would have to be housed in spacious conditions.

The NIH Council of Councils Working Group proposal, which will go to the agency’s director after a 60-day period for public comment, also calls for major cuts in grants to study chimps in laboratories and no return to breeding them for research.

The chimpanzees would be sent to a national sanctuary, Chimp Haven, that opened in 2005 to house former federal research chimps on a site in rural Louisiana.

Under an agreement made late last year, nine chimpanzees arrived Tuesday at Chimp Haven from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s New Iberia Research Center. Seven more are expected Thursday, and another 95 will arrive over the coming months, sanctuary officials said.

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