On November 14, 2013, the U.S. Senate passed legislation that would fund sanctuaries to house chimpanzees currently owned by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and held in captivity for biomedical research. A bill to amend the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection (CHIMP) Act1, which is expected to be signed into law by President Obama, will effectuate the retirement of nearly all research chimpanzees and their transfer out of captivity to sanctuaries more closely resembling their natural environment. The CHIMP Act, passed in 2000, authorized unlimited spending on chimpanzees in laboratories, but capped the federal funds available for spending on chimpanzee sanctuaries. As of November 2013, the $30 million sanctuary funding had nearly been reached.

Between 2001 and 2010, chimpanzees were used in 110 NIH-funded experiments. Such projects included studies on hepatitis, liver disease, AIDS, malaria, and other diseases. Other government agencies used chimpanzees in their research, too—including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Centers for Disease Control, and National Science Foundation—though on a smaller scale than the NIH. But this practice of regular experimentation appears to be coming to a close, in part spurred by a 2011 Institute of Medicine Study2 that served as a call to action of sorts to retire chimpanzees from research. Despite the chimpanzees’ heavy presence in government laboratories, the study found that given recent technological and scientific advances, chimpanzees were no longer necessary for the majority of biomedical and behavioral research.

Following the report in June of this year, NIH announced that it intended to retire 310 out of the approximately 360 government-owned research chimpanzees in captivity. When signed into law, the amended CHIMP Act will give NIH the congressional backing needed to effectuate this plan. This “retirement”—or move from government research laboratories to sanctuaries, where the chimpanzees will be able to interact as they would in the wild, in groups—will occur over the next five years.

The conservation effects of the amended CHIMP Act would span across federal agencies as well, as the bill is not alone in its efforts to protect chimpanzees living in captivity (not exclusive to laboratories). For example, earlier this year U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a proposed rule3 that would provide the same level of federal protection for all chimpanzees—whether in the wild or in captivity—in response to a petition by the Humane Society of the United States and others. The proposed rule, if enacted, would reclassify captive chimpanzees as endangered species, in turn equalizing the treatment of all chimpanzees under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973. Under the current framework, chimpanzees found in the wild are classified as endangered. By contrast, chimpanzees in captivity are considered only to be “threatened” species subject to lesser protections.4

Animal welfare advocates have lauded these efforts as important and overdue. Kathleen Conlee, vice president of animal research issues for the Humane Society, commended the CHIMP Act bill for the psychological benefits to chimpanzees of sanctuary “retirement.” She noted that “[l]ack of social housing can have significant impact on [chimpanzees’] psychology. There have been a number of papers showing how chimps that have been used in research suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.”5 The Humane Society president and CEO, Wayne Pacelle, echoed the sentiment: “Chimps belong on grass and trees, not behind bars in small cages in laboratories. When the laboratory chimps claim their new homes in sanctuaries, we will have not only helped chimps, but restored our humanity by ending privation and misery for these animals.”

This bill and similar federal efforts are welcome advances in chimpanzee protection. But ultimately, they reach only chimpanzees owned by the federal government and do not extend to those used for privately funded testing. Only time will reveal the true impact and extent to which these measures actually advance the welfare of the species as a whole.