The largest primate research facility in the United States has been accused of breeding chimpanzees in violation of government rules, and possibly the law.
At the heart of the case is whether the New Iberia Research Center systematically broke National Institutes of Health rules while breeding chimpanzees, or simply made a few honest and subsequently-corrected mistakes.
However, the NIH branch responsible for investigating the allegations has done so opaquely, with apparent reluctance.
Bringing the charges is the Humane Society of the United States. “They’ve signed contracts and grants saying that they won’t use federally owned chimps to breed,” said Kathleen Conlee, the Humane Society’s animal research program director. “We have evidence that they’re breeding federally owned chimps.”
New Iberia and the Humane Society are old adversaries: In 2009, undercover video taken by Humane Society activists led to a government investigation of disturbing Animal Welfare Act violations at the facility, which houses 350 chimpanzees used in disease research. Some of the chimpanzees are owned privately by companies or universities, and others are government-owned.
According to the Humane Society, 123 surviving chimpanzees born at New Iberia between 2000 and 2009, and another 14 who died, had at least one federally owned parent. That qualification is critical: While the National Institutes of Health permits New Iberia to breed privately owned chimpanzees — which is how it satisfies its own need for new research chimps — they’ve banned federally owned chimp breeding since 1995.
New Iberia receives approximately $1,000,000 annually from the National Center for Research Resources, the branch of the NIH that oversees chimpanzees, to maintain its chimp colony. Respecting the ban is a condition of the grant.
The Humane Society’s charges are based on records provided by New Iberia to the NIH until 2009. The records describe the lineage of chimpanzees born in the colony (see right).
According to New Iberia, however, only 28 chimpanzees were born to a federally owned parent — a number that represents a few isolated mistakes, since corrected by improved colony management and neutering procedures, rather than ongoing and perhaps knowing wrongdoing.
Perplexingly, New Iberia’s number of 28 is based on the same records from which the Humane Society drew its figure of 123. Exactly how New Iberia and the Humane Society came to such wildly different conclusions is unknown, and whether the NCRR has tried to find out isn’t clear.
In its 2011 Senate budget request, the NCRR responded to budget committee concerns about New Iberia’s breeding by citing their number of 28.
“NCRR has confirmed that [New Iberia Research Center] does not have an active breeding program involving federally owned chimpanzees and that the facility is committed to honoring the NCRR moratorium,” they wrote. “NCRR is not sure how the number 123 was arrived at but would be willing to evaluate any additional records that were obtained by other animal rights groups and follow up with [New Iberia] if there are any discrepancies.”
But according to Conlee, NCRR declined to discuss the findings. In June, Conlee wrote NCRR nonhuman primate resource coordinator Harold Watson and asked to “set up a time to meet with you in order to go over what we have found.” Watson declined.
“NIH takes all allegations brought to our attention seriously and we will take appropriate steps to review and address potential cases of noncompliance,” Watson wrote to Conlee. “I appreciate your offer to meet regarding this issue, but I do not feel that is necessary.”
Asked to explain the discrepancy and to discuss chimpanzee breeding regulations, the NCRR responded through spokeswoman Bobbi Gardner that “the NIH will neither confirm nor deny matters which may be under review.”
Thomas Rowell, director of New Iberia, said in an email to Wired Science that “there has been a lot of information (and misinformation) passed back and forth,” and and declined to speak further until the NIH review is complete.
According to Rowell, all 28 chimpanzees born accidentally to federally owned parents are now supported financially by the University of Lafayette, the Louisiana school near New Iberia. But the Humane Society says 7 of the chimpanzees are federally supported at what over their lifetime will amount to a taxpayer cost of up to $7 million.
Should New Iberia be found to have engaged in large-scale chimp breeding in violation of the ban, the implications could be dramatic. The Humane Society has asked the Department of Justice to pursue New Iberia for fraudulent use of federal money, and wants the Department of Health and Human Services to cease funding the laboratory.
Either of those outcomes would represent a major blow to ongoing medical experiments on chimpanzees in the United States, which is the only country other than Gabon to permit such research. Long a controversial practice, it’s become a mainstream issue in the last year, with many scientists joining activists in saying that suffering inflicted on chimpanzees in research is morally unconscionable. New Iberia is the flagship of U.S. chimp research. If it sinks, the fleet may follow.
For the immediate future, the Humane Society has asked that New Iberia retire all chimpanzees born in violation of the federal ban to sanctuaries. If the infants are 5 years old or younger, the Humane Society asks that their mothers be sent with them.
Image: A video still from footage of Simba, a 44-year-old chimpanzee used in hepatitis-C research at New Iberia. (Humane Society of the United States)