(CNN)Despite a promise more than a year and half ago by the National Institutes of Health to retire the vast majority of government research chimpanzees to sanctuaries, hundreds of chimps are still being held for potential medical experimentation, many of them aging and intentionally infected with HIV or hepatitis.
Chimps still stuck in research labs despite promise of retirement
In June 2013, the agency's top officials pledged with great fanfare to eventually retire the chimps to habitats where they could roam more freely instead of being cooped up in corrals or cages at research facilities.
"We believe (chimpanzees) deserve special consideration as special creatures," NIH director Dr. Francis Collins said at a news conference announcing the agency's intentions. "(It is) our responsibility to treat them with respect."
But so far, only six of the 310 research chimps have been allowed to leave government research facilities, and the agency has no timetable for when it will retire the rest to sanctuaries. In the meantime, dozens of the chimps have died waiting.
Advocates for the chimps say there's no reason the retirements to sanctuaries should be taking so long, especially since the NIH says scientific advances have rendered the chimps largely unnecessary for research.
"When push comes to shove, we see a lot of areas in which there's been resistance, reluctance and a kind of stall in taking action that would benefit chimpanzees," said Theodora Capaldo, president of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society, an animal advocacy organization.
The six chimps allowed to retire moved in December from the Keeling Center laboratory at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas to Chimp Haven in Louisiana, the only federally approved sanctuary for chimps.
Gigi, 52, Polly, 51, Gimp, 45, Bruce, 40, Cesar, 27, and Roxanne, 24, had lived as research subjects, and were sent to a part of Chimp Haven reserved for animals infected with HIV or hepatitis.
"Welcome home," a staff member said as she greeted the six chimps and wheeled them out of a truck trailer and into the sanctuary, where chimps are rotated through different habitats, including large forests where they can swing from vines and eat fruit the caretakers have hidden in the trees.
Cathy Spraetz, director of Chimp Haven, said she's concerned that many of the 310 chimps will die before they get to retire -- the NIH acknowledges that 24 of them already have.
"A lot of these chimpanzees are elderly, and so they don't have a lot of time," she said.
She gestured across a pond to one of Chimp Haven's forested habitats, where chimps were eating breakfast.
"Even giving them months to enjoy this as opposed to being in a more confined environment is the only right thing to do," she said.
Agency officials repeatedly declined to schedule CNN an on-camera interview with Collins, citing his busy schedule.
NIH public affairs specialist Amanda Fine said the agency "remains committed to retiring nearly all of the NIH-owned research chimpanzees," but safely moving the chimpanzees is a "complicated process."
In emails, Fine gave several reasons for the situation.
She said before retiring the chimps, the agency needs to select up to 50 that will remain in research facilities because they might be needed for "critical research" in the future. Selecting those 50 chimps "may require a period of several years," she said.
She also said there's no more space at Chimp Haven. That's partly because a separate group of NIH chimps previously promised retirement finished moving there last summer. The NIH notes that with those chimpanzees included, they've retired a total of 66 chimps to sanctuaries since June 2013.
Renate Myles, an NIH spokeswoman, said building any new sanctuary space would require permission from Congress.
A year and a half ago, the NIH had not ruled out the idea of retiring the chimps in the research facilities where they're currently confined, and Chris Abee, who runs the research laboratory at MD Anderson's Keeling Center, said he would like to the keep the 150 government chimps he currently has.
"When the chimpanzees are not on study, this is a sanctuary for them," he said, noting that at any given time, most of the chimps are not involved in studies.
But the director of Chimp Haven disagreed.
"Retired means to sanctuary. Labs are lots of things, but they are certainly not sanctuaries, and so it's important that the chimps come here," Spraetz said.
She noted that some lab chimps have lived in cages for so long, they're afraid of grass when they arrive at Chimp Haven. Gradually, they become accustomed to living in a more natural setting.
"There are lots of tears when we see chimps released into a very large corral or habitat for the first time," she said. "Just knowing here they had an opportunity that they've not had their entire life makes it all so worthwhile."