Former New Mexico lab chimps one step closer to federal sanctuary

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – More than two dozen former lab chimps in New Mexico are one step closer to living out their remaining days in sanctuary. 

“We’ve decided we don’t need to use them anymore in medical research. I mean, they deserve a life like they had before we captured them or bred them,” said Leslie Rudloff, an attorney with Animal Protection New Mexico. 

On Friday, a U.S. District Court judge in Maryland ruled the National Institutes of Health does not have authority to decide if former lab chimps are healthy enough to be transferred to Chimp Haven – a federally-run sanctuary in Louisiana. The judge referenced the CHIMP Act, which requires the NIH to relocate all former lab chimps to Chimp Haven – a federally-run sanctuary in Louisiana. 

According to a roster from May 2022, there are still 30 former lab chimps living in a facility on Holloman Air Force Base. 

“They’re in the same conditions they were in, in the same place they were in when they were tested upon,” said Rudloff. “They don’t know that tomorrow, somebody’s not going to come and draw their blood or do a biopsy on them, you know, they’re still in that same place.” 

The NIH officially ended the use of chimps in laboratory testing in 2015. By 2018, 94 chimpanzees were safely transported from Alamogordo to Chimp Haven; however, the NIH decided to keep 44 chimps at the base because they were reportedly not healthy enough to travel. 

“They’re sitting in basically almost like jail cells at the Air Force base,” Rudloff said. “They’re doing time for crime they didn’t commit.” 

Since that decision, 14 of the chimps have died or were euthanized. Rudloff believes many of the chimps – 19 of whom are over 40 years old – are suffering from diseases that come with old age. 

“Chimpanzees, as they age, are susceptible to the same diseases we are – high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, these sorts of chronic conditions,” Rudloff said. “That’s exactly why we want them transferred to the sanctuary, because they’re in a better position to care for these chimpanzees and their disease.” 

Animal Protection New Mexico filed a lawsuit to transfer the chimps in January 2021. Friday’s ruling was a result of that lawsuit, but it’s not the only attempt to relocate the chimps. 

Most recently, Sen. Martin Heinrich introduced a bill in March 2022 to relocate the – 34 at the time — chimps to the sanctuary.

“The sacrifice that they made — and let’s say wasn’t willing — they were captured, sent to a laboratory to do these horrible medical tests for decades,” Rudloff said. “Ethically, I think, as a human race, we owe that to them for being mistaken thinking that that could maybe help humans, we owe them a great life.”

The judge’s ruling requires Animal Protection New Mexico — and other activist groups — to develop a plan forward by Jan. 13.

Rudloff says the goal is to relocate all the remaining chimps, but they are still working out the details.