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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Don’t Monkey Around with Chimp Cap

If the federal government could spend its dollars in a more cost-efficient way and make programs run better, shouldn’t Congress allow it? That’s the idea behind S. 1561, the CHIMP Act Amendments of 2013, which passed the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee by voice vote this morning. The bipartisan legislation sponsored by HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Ranking Member Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., would give the National Institutes of Health the flexibility within its budget to retire chimpanzees to sanctuaries rather than continue warehousing them in laboratories.

ChimpSanctuaries provide higher welfare standards for chimps at a lower cost to taxpayers than housing chimps in barren labs. Unless Congress acts, however, NIH will soon be barred from providing money to care for chimps in sanctuaries, because the agency is on the brink of reaching the $30 million cap set forth in the CHIMP Act of 2000. There is no similar restriction on spending unlimited dollars for chimps in labs, and we need to remove the barrier and allow NIH to more efficiently spend the money it has.

After 13 years of cumulative costs, NIH is set to reach its spending limit for the care of chimps in sanctuaries in mid-November, and the agency has indicated it will no longer be able to provide funds for the 159 government-owned chimps currently in sanctuary once that happens. The agency will also be prevented from sending an additional 370 chimps, who are currently housed in laboratories, but are retired or scheduled to be retired from research under NIH guidelines, to sanctuary.

As Sen. Harkin told ABC News, “The National Institutes of Health has made a worthy and important decision to scale back the use of chimpanzees in medical research. Current law limits NIH’s ability to use its existing funds to provide care to its chimpanzees already housed in sanctuaries, in addition to carrying out the important goal of moving the chimps currently living in research labs. We have an obligation to provide care for animals that have directly contributed to our medical knowledge, and it is absolutely urgent that Congress act to remove this funding limitation now and for the future.”

A technical fix to remove the funding barrier was almost included in the latest spending package to lift the debt ceiling and restart the federal government. However, as Kerry Young reported in Roll Call, it was dropped from the package and became a victim of the larger budget battles derailing the appropriations process on Capitol Hill. This despite the fact it saves money and there is virtually no opposition; as Young wrote, “The retirement of the chimpanzees—many of which have spent their lives in captivity, from testing labs to sanctuaries—has been highly popular and it’s a good economic move for the NIH. Retiring the chimpanzees to a sanctuary will in time bring down the NIH’s expenses, because caring for them at laboratory-related sites is more expensive.”

Now it’s up to Congress to pass the authorizing bill, S. 1561, and today’s swift committee action is an important step. The Senate and House should both fast-track this critical legislation to address the spending limit and allow NIH the continued flexibility of providing care for chimps at sanctuary, before time runs out in the coming weeks. The scientific consensus is that chimps are largely unnecessary for research, and we must get on with the business of allowing these highly intelligent and social creatures to live out their remaining years in natural and peaceful sanctuary settings, rather than continue to waste tax dollars warehousing them for no reason.

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