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Louisiana sanctuary offers research chimps a golden retirement

By Kathy Finn

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Scientist Linda Brent is as frantic as anyone might guess given that the size of the "household" she oversees is about to double.

Unlike an expectant parent, though, Brent is focused on raising millions of dollars to care for dozens of geriatric chimpanzees.

More than 100 of the primates will taste the freedom of the forest for the first time in their adult lives when they move next year to Chimp Haven Inc, a national sanctuary Brent founded in 1995 in Keithville, Louisiana. The planned moved was announced Tuesday by the National Institutes of Health, which owns the animals.

"This is a historic day for research chimpanzees in the United States," Brent said.

Most of the chimps have lived for years at a University of Louisiana biomedical research center in New Iberia, where scientists exposed them to HIV and hepatitis in an effort to improve treatment of the diseases in humans.

Chimp Haven is already home to 108 of the chimps that have long fascinated people because they share many genetic and behavioral traits with humans. The nonprofit organization has for the past decade doubled as the National Chimpanzee Sanctuary, designated by the U.S. government to care for chimps retired from federally funded research programs.

The 200-acre sanctuary located in a forest just south of Shreveport also houses chimps that have been retired from the entertainment industry or are no longer wanted as pets. Within the walls of the sanctuary, the animals can roam the forest, gather in "social" groups in open-air enclosures or seek the warmth of shelters during cold weather.

Because of their physiological and behavioral similarities to humans, chimpanzees in the 1980s became common subjects for biomedical researchers, with the government launching a breeding program to support the effort.

But as the research yielded less useful information than expected, a surplus of the primates resulted.

"We feel there's a good chance the government will end the use of chimpanzees in research," Brent said.

Kathy Hudson, NIH deputy director of science, outreach and policy, said on Tuesday that the institutes have been studying how to manage about 670 chimps that are being been phased out of research in several NIH facilities.

A report completed a year ago showed that "with some exceptions, chimpanzees were largely unnecessary in research," Hudson said during a Tuesday briefing with reporters. "We have a legal and ethical responsibility to care for the animals despite their not being needed for biomedical research," she added.

Hudson said Chimp Haven can accept about 50 chimpanzees from the New Iberia center during the next four months, but about $2.3 million worth of new construction will be necessary before it can accommodate the rest of them. The nonprofit Foundation for the NIH is working with Chimp Haven and the Humane Society of the United States to raise the needed funds.

"I'm confident they will reach the target," she said.

The New Iberia center will continue to house about 230 university-owned chimps, according to research center spokesman Aaron Martin.

As many as 900 chimps may reside in research labs nationwide, according to Brent.

While the north Louisiana environment hardly matches that of their equatorial Africa homeland, she said, the chimps "can be outside pretty much every day of the year, and it rains enough that it's good for their skin and hair."

(Reporting By Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by Paul Simao)

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