The National Institutes of Health (NIH), America's pre-eminent government biomedical research organization, is retiring its remaining research chimpanzees and sending them to sanctuaries.

In an interview with Nature, NIH chief Francis Collins framed the decision as the culmination of a years-long process of cost-benefit analysis: 

“I think this is the natural next step of what has been a very thoughtful five-year process of trying to come to terms with the benefits and risks of trying to perform research with these very special animals. We reached a point where in that five years the need for research has essentially shrunk to zero."

Should major medical research organizations focus on rare diseases? How does an organization like NIH determine which subjects to pursue and which to leave on the table? NIH chief Francis Collins discusses the tricky nature of setting the agenda:

While the NIH's decision is certainly momentous, it's hardly surprising. Collins notes that new restrictions on captive animal testing have caused research requests to more or less disappear. The NIH had already retired a large number of chimps — including over three-hundred in 2013 alone. Now that demand has dried up, he said, it no longer remains tenable to maintain an extraneous colony of never-needed test subjects.

Reactions to the move have been predictable; the usual suspects are emerging from the woodwork. PETA and other animal rights groups are joyous. Various research advocates are more wary.

Frankie Trull, president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research in Washington, DC, told Nature that it makes little sense to pull the plug on the program and "take that research away forever," especially since other similar options don't exist.

The end of chimp testing continues a 2015 trend of organizations announcing the end of captive animal programming. Ringling Bros. announced in March that it was phasing out elephant performers in its circus productions. Earlier this month, SeaWorld announced it would end its notorious Shamu orca shows, albeit only to be replaced by another killer whale show in development.


Robert Montenegro is a writer and dramaturg who regularly contributes to Big Think and Crooked Scoreboard. He lives in Washington DC and is a graduate of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Twitter: @Monteneggroll. Website: