For almost 200 former medical research chimpanzees living at the Alamogordo Primate Facility in New Mexico, the past decade has been free of the biomedical tests that plagued their earlier years. But as the New York Times reports, the National Institutes of Health have petitioned to use the chimps once more for medical research. This has activists and even the military weighing in.

Medical research on chimps first began in the United States in the 1920s, but the moral debate dates back much farther. Chimps' genetic closeness to humans makes them “prime” subjects for groundbreaking medical research to find cures for various viruses and diseases. But this same closeness also sparks an ethical debate.

International groups like the Great Ape Project have lobbied governments around the world to protect chimps and other great apes from abuse, including medical research. Spain recently joined the ranks of countries that prohibit experiments on chimps, orangutans, gorillas and more. The United States is currently the only developed country that still uses great apes for research. And for these chimps in New Mexico, time may be running out.

The NY Times reports on Flo, a 53-year-old chimp who lives at Alamogordo, located on the Holloman Air Force Base. Flo was once a chimp who smoked cigarettes for circus goers. Then she became a part of a research facility, where she participated in biomedical research for hepatitis C and HIV. For the past 10 years, Flo has lived test-free on the base. As part of an agreement, the military prohibits tests on great apes.

But the National Institutes of Health wants Flo and 185 other chimps back in hopes of developing a vaccine for hepatitis C. This has animal activists outraged. Laura Bonar is the program director for Animal Protection of New Mexico. As Bonar told the NY Times, “These chimpanzees have given up their freedom, if not their natural environment, their bodies, their health, and their children to research. And at the end of their lives, we can give them something back.”

The chimps are currently protected under a 10-year agreement between National Institutes of Health and the Air Force, which is soon set to expire. Most of the chimps have been infected or exposed to hepatitis C and HIV through previous research. They were originally acquired from the Coulston Foundation, a research facility infamous for its legacy of abusing test animals.

Proponents argue that the chimps should be used for their “original purpose” of medical testing. Harold Watson heads the chimpanzee research program for the National Center for Research Resources. As he told the NY Times, the animals will be closely monitored. According to Dr. Watson, “I think people envision pictures of monkeys with electrodes in their heads. This is not what we’re talking about.”

In the meantime, the fate of the Alamogordo Primate Facility remains uncertain.

For further reading:

Aging chimps may be returned to medical research
Former medical research chimps may be forced out of retirement and back to research facilities.