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Chimpanzees: Involuntary Test Subjects

Chimpanzees are more closely related to humans than they are to gorillas. Chimpanzees and humans share the same blood types and have at least 95 percent genetic similarity. These highly intelligent animals have long childhoods, cooperate with and learn from each other, participate in cultural and social activities such as dancing in the rain, and make and use tools.(1)

Endangered Species in Decline

Once home to at least 1 million chimpanzees, Africa now has a chimpanzee population of only 250,000 because habitats continue to be threatened by commercial and agricultural development and the animals themselves are hunted for meat.(2) The Jane Goodall Institute estimates that 5,000 chimpanzees are killed by poachers annually.(3) Orphaned chimps are taken for the pet trade. Both species of chimpanzees, Pan paniscus and Pan troglodytes, are listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’ Red List.(4) Under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Department of the Interior lists them as “endangered” when they are found in the wild and “threatened” when they are in captivity.(5) This distinction is called “split-listed” and allows chimpanzees to be used in medical research.

Victims of Research

While the United Kingdom, Japan, Austria, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and other countries have prohibited the use of great apes as medical test subjects, the United States continues to use approximately 1,000 chimpanzees in experiments.(6,7) Eight federally funded research centers use primates (three keep chimpanzees) as “models” to study AIDS, hepatitis, cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, leprosy, heart disease, and other human health problems—even though chimpanzees would never contract these ailments under normal circumstances.(8) Chimpanzees are also the victims of bioterrorism research that is conducted at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Experiments conducted on behalf of what is known as Project Bioshield subject the animals to painful and highly stressful bone-marrow extraction (some animals are apparently kept isolated for up to 20 years) in order to develop antibodies for anthrax and other pathogens.(9) The tests are redundant and unnecessary because non-animal antibodies have already been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or are in late-stage clinical trials.

Most of the other 1,300 captive chimpanzees in the U.S. are confined to zoos or used and abused in the entertainment industry. Only about 500 live in sanctuaries.(10)

The NIH officially oversees the use of chimpanzees in experiments through its Chimpanzee Management Program (ChiMP), which funds the chimpanzee colonies used in the NIH’s Chimpanzee Biomedical Research Program. In 1993, an NIH-funded chimpanzee colony passed into the hands of the Coulston Foundation, which—after decades of serious complaints—was charged by the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture with violations of the Good Laboratory Practices and the minimum standards of the federal Animal Welfare Act.(11,12) In 2000, the NIH took ownership of nearly half the Coulston chimpanzees, and in 2001, the NIH finally made the decision to completely discontinue its financial support of Coulston.(13) Coulston subsequently went out of business.(14)


In the late 20th century, the NIH began an intensive breeding program to supply chimpanzees for AIDS and HIV research, only to find that chimpanzees do not contract human AIDS. Under pressure from animal protection groups, ChiMP passed the CHIMP Act, which established a system of sanctuaries for government-owned chimpanzees who were no longer “needed” for federally funded research protocols.(15) A follow-up amendment prohibiting “the removal of and research on retired research chimpanzees living in Federal sanctuaries” was signed into law at the end of 2007.(16)

What You Can Do

Let your congressman or congresswoman know that you want the U.S. to join a global ban on the use of nonhuman primates in medical research. For some helpful tips, please read our factsheet on working with legislative representatives.

Before you donate to a health charity, ask whether it funds animal experiments. Don’t contribute until you have a written guarantee that animals are not being used. Let charities and service organizations that fund animal tests know that you only give to those that don’t harm animals. 

Most colleges and universities have laboratories that conduct animal experiments. For information on the experiments that are being conducted and to voice your opinion, please contact the school directly.

1) Roger Highfield, “These Chimps Are Fishing for Ants … But Does This Make Them Cultured?” The Daily Telegraph 30 Oct. 2002.
2) New Vision, “Uganda: We Must Save Our Cousins the Chimps,” Africa News 28 Jan. 2003.
3) Kate Lahey, “Simon Is a Prime Mate for Uganda’s Needy Chimpanzees,” North Shore Times 14 Feb. 2003.
4) International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, “IUCN Red List of Threatened Species,” 10 Jan. 2008.
5) U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, “Species Profile: Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes),” 15 Jan. 2008.
6) Alicia S. Ivory, “Chimpanzee Laws in the United States and Abroad,” Michigan State University College of Law, 2007.
7) Jane Goodall Institute, “Chimp Facts,”, 25 Jan. 2008.
8) Division of Comparative Medicine (NCRR/NIH), National Institutes of Health, National Center for Research Resources, “Primate Resources,” 19 Dec. 2007.
9) Z. Chen et. al, “Characterization of Chimpanzee/Human Monoclonal Antibodies to Vaccinia Virus A33 Glycoprotein and Its Variola Virus Homolog In Vitro and in a Vaccinia Virus Mouse Protection Model,” Journal of  Virology 81 (2007): 8989-95.
10) Jane Goodall Institute.
11) David A. Lepay, letter to Frederick Coulston, Division of Scientific Investigations, Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, Department of Heath and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration, Ref. no. 99-HFD-45-1201.
12) Shannon Lee Brown, “Surplus Chimps Stranded in Research Controversy,” The Washington Post 15 May 2001.
13) Rene Romo, “Researcher Gives Up Chimps,” Albuquerque Journal 22 Sep. 2002.
14) Deborah Baker, “Appeals Court Orders Coulston to Turn Over Records,” Associated Press 19 Mar. 2004.
15) William J. Clinton, “Clinton Statement on Chimpanzee Health Act,” The White House, 20 Dec. 2000.
16) Scott Stanzel, “Statement by Deputy Press Secretary Scott Stanzel,” The White House, 26 Dec. 2007.

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