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(Last updated 2/21/06)

"Ohio State To Close Its Primate Center, Retire Its Chimpanzees," 2/21/06.

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OHIO STATE TO CLOSE ITS PRIMATE CENTER, RETIRE ITS CHIMPANZEES

Questions and Answers:

Why move the chimpanzees now? Isn't this a sudden move on OSU's part?

No, it really isn't. University leaders have had ongoing discussions about the future of the chimp center for nearly four years. The original Memorandum of Understanding with the center director, Sally Boysen, provided that if funding was not secured by the end of December 2004, that the center would be closed and the animals retired to a sanctuary.

Then why wasn't that done as agreed?

Between January, 2005 and the present, discussions continued with the director who informed university leaders that she was continuing to actively seek support for continuing her research and underwriting the operation of the chimp center. We elected to give the researcher additional time in hopes that she would succeed. Unfortunately, none of those efforts led to renewed funding for the project.

What did those efforts entail?

The principal investigator submitted no fewer than nine individual research proposals to external funding agencies for support of her work. None of them succeeded in winning funding in competitive research evaluations. However, the university wanted to provide the investigator every opportunity to obtain funding and so delayed enacting the provisions of the MOU.

So the closing of the facility and the shipping of the chimps really boils down to simply a loss of research funding? Did a lack of money drive this decision?

Not really. Foremost in our minds were concerns over safety at the facility and the well-being of the animals housed there. The center building was last renovated in 1991 and intended to house six young and adult chimpanzees instead of the nine it now shelters or the 11 it housed two years ago. When chimpanzees are confined to too small an area, it fosters conflict among members of the colony and those clashes often lead to chimp-on-chimp violence and subsequent injury.

But how serious could that really be? Isn't that an exaggeration to support the university's wish to close the facility?

Absolutely not! People need to remember the inherent nature of these animals. These are not domestic pets – they are wild animals. And while the public is often shown images of cute infant chimpanzees, the truth is that there are serious risks in working with these primates. A full-grown adult male may weigh more than 250 pounds and has at least five times the strength of humans. Within a colony, there is an order of dominance among the members that fosters ongoing social groupings as well as conflicts over leadership within the clan. As the young chimps in our colony move from adolescence into adulthood, the frequency of these clashes is increasing and will continue to do so as they age. These conflicts can be violent and often require physical separation of some chimps from others, while still remaining a part of the larger colony.

What role did the recent incident of a chimp biting a student worker play in the decision to relocate the chimpanzees and close the center?

As is understandable, anytime there is an injury in an animal facility on campus, the university undertakes an evaluation of current operations and procedures to insure that everything is being done correctly and that previously unforeseen problems might be alleviated. The student worker's injury occurred while attending to one of the older female chimps that was being treated for a bite injury inflicted during an earlier altercation with another animal. It is coincidental that it occurred so close to the announcement of our decision to retire the chimps but it certainly did heighten our long-standing concerns about overcrowding at the facility.

Why has it taken so long to find a permanent home for these chimps?

For the past several years many institutions across the country have been reassessing their practice of maintaining chimpanzee colonies for research. The U.S. Air Force, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration have all begun retiring their chimpanzees to the few primate sanctuaries available. In fact, OSU had initiated agreements with two previous sanctuaries to take our chimps but these agreements unexpectedly failed. Our agreement with the current recipient – Primarily Primates, Inc., of San Antonio, Texas, represents our third effort to find a home for the animals.

But why the rush?

As stated before, the number of places capable and willing to take these animals is rapidly decreasing and our “window of opportunity” to identify an acceptable long-term home for the animals is quickly closing.

If overcrowding is the key concern that could lead to safety issues, couldn't the university simply retire the older ones, for example, and keep the smaller, younger ones?

In fact, we considered that as an alternative at several points during this process. However, remember that even the younger animals are very large and powerful and require ample space to run and climb. In addition, chimpanzees are social animals and live in large groups like our colony. Our own experts, as well as those outside the university from whom we have sought advice, have all recommended that we not split the colony and alter the social groups that the animals have formed. Moreover, all of those same experts have unanimously recommended moving the chimps to Primarily Primates as a better course for the animals, compared to maintaining them here at the university.

What will happen to the center's director now that there is no center to direct?

Professor Boysen is a tenured faculty member at Ohio State and a respected member of our academic community. She will continue to teach courses in her specific area of expertise. University officials have informed Dr. Boysen that they will work with her as much as possible to facilitate a continuation of her research, although it will not involve working with a colony of chimpanzees housed at the university.

What about the tours of the facility that have been offered in the past? Can the news media visit the facility as they have numerous times in the past?

We are asking everyone to realize that the coming weeks will be a difficult time for many of us at the university. Certainly, Dr. Boysen, who has worked with these animals for so many years, is understandably disturbed by the university's decision, even though she has been aware that this event was inevitable. Likewise, activities required to facilitate the animal transfers are expected to heighten tensions at the facility and that tension can seriously affect the behavior of the animals. For those reasons and for the safety concerns we have described, we have decided to curtail all visits by non-essential personnel to the center. This means that “tours” and “open houses” have been stopped, volunteers will be thanked for their past assistance and requests for visits by the news media will be denied. The university has a long history of demonstrating the “openness” of its research facilities – as it has with the chimp center – but in preparation for this transfer, we are closing general access to the facility.

Any other points?

We are certain that relocating the chimpanzees to a haven where they can live out the remainder of their lives in a safe, natural environment is the right thing to do, and that now is the right time to do it.

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