ATLANTA - Emory University might have to spend tens of millions of dollars to renovate the home of its research chimpanzees - all for aging chimps it doesn't necessarily need.
The National Institutes of Health, Yerkes' only source of chimp-research funding, is phasing out biomedical chimpanzee research - now deemed "largely unnecessary" - and may soon raise standards for the housing of chimps that do remain in research.
Only five of the 78 chimps at Yerkes National Primate Research Center are being used for NIH-funded research right now, but finding another retirement home for many of the others is a problem: The only chimp sanctuary Yerkes is willing to send them to doesn't have the money to make room for them.
Unless Yerkes finds new funds or abandons chimp research altogether, it must meet NIH standards, and that's what could cost millions.
The NIH will decide at the end of March or early in April whether to adopt proposed, costlier standards for chimpanzee housing.
Yerkes is one of eight NlH-funded national primate research centers. The center's two campuses - one at Emory and one in Lawrenceville - are home to nearly 3,400 nonhuman primates. Researchers there study topics that have practical implications for human health, like progressive illnesses, memory, vaccines and immunizations, brain activity and behavior.
"We are very concerned about what it will cost our center to adhere to the recommendations for the ethologically appropriate physical and social environments," Yerkes spokeswoman Lisa Newbern said in an email.
She said the new recommendations "would provide larger space per chimpanzee than many humans have in their own homes."
Requests for a phone conversation or a visit to Yerkes were made, but Newbern insisted on email communication only.
"Based on recent construction costs, we estimate this will be in the tens of millions of dollars for space that will have limited use given our aging colony and our hope to send additional chimpanzees to Chimp Haven," Newbern wrote.
Chimp Haven, a sanctuary in Louisiana, is the only one meeting a lab-animal accrediting agency's standards. But it has no vacancies.
How did Yerkes come to have so many excess chimps? "In the 1980s, the prevailing thinking was that chimpanzees would be the best animal model for HIV/AIDS research," said Newbern. "As such, the NIH asked the research centers with chimpanzees to breed them."
And so they did. But now other primates are preferred for HIV/AIDS research.
Yerkes was among the first centers to send retired chimpanzees to Chimp Haven, said Newbern, but requests to send more - many more - have been denied.
The sanctuary is full, and there are no federal funds to expand or build a new one. The federal Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection Act, passed in 2000, places a cap of $30 million on sanctuary construction and maintenance.
Jim Anderson said that cap will be reached in July when the NIH renews its contract with Chimp Haven. Anderson is the deputy director for program coordination, planning and strategic initiatives at NIH.
There are other sanctuaries, but Chimp Haven is the only federal sanctuary, and the one accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care. All federally owned chimps must be retired there. Yerkes, whose chimps are federally funded, wants the same standards for its animals.
"We would want our chimpanzees to be guaranteed the same level of care we provide as well as regulatory oversight to which we are subject," said Newbern. Yerkes has been AAALAC-accredited since 1985.
But since then Yerkes has been cited by the United States Department of Agriculture for the accidental deaths of multiple animals and unclean or unsafe housing. In 2007 Yerkes was fined $15,000 for "willful" legal violations.
A lack of retirement options isn't a problem only for Yerkes: It's a major concern for the NIH.
If Francis Collins, director of the NIH, approves the proposed new standards, about 300 NIH-owned chimps will be retired.
But right now they also have nowhere to go. Federally owned chimps can only be retired to Chimp Haven.
Raising the $30 million cap would require congressional action, Anderson said. For the time being, the NIH could continue using taxpayer money to maintain federally owned retired chimpanzees where they are.
Chimp Haven is trying to expand without federal dollars. The sanctuary is working with the Foundation for the NIH to raise $5 million, said Cathy Willis Spraetz, enough to expand and cover costs for 110 retired chimps from a research center in Louisiana. Willis Spraetz, a native Atlantan, took over as president of the sanctuary last week.
To expand the sanctuary and care for additional chimps - like those from Yerkes - would require a lot more fundraising.