No more poking, pricking or prodding. If you’re a simian (and you are), it’s good news.

“It’s great news,” said Mary Lee Jensvold, director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University.

“It’s a watershed moment.”

She’s referring to a recommendation last month by a National Institutes of Health (NIH) committee that more than 300 chimpanzees used in government-funded laboratories would no longer be used for research and instead be retired to sanctuaries.

And it’s possible one or two of these newly freed chimpanzees could eventually end up in Central Washington.

If the NIH accepts the recommendation, then almost all the chimpanzees owned by the government and currently held in research facilities will live out the rest of their days in chimpanzee sanctuaries. That will affect about 310 chimps.

Research conducted on chimpanzees, the animals most closely related to humans, has long been controversial. About a year ago, a report commissioned by the NIH determined that, for the most part, it isn’t scientifically necessary to conduct biomedical research on chimps.

The report concluded that newer technologies, other animals and other nonanimal systems are now available to address questions that before could only be answered by using chimpanzees.

“We in the chimpanzee protection community have been eagerly awaiting for it (the recommendation to retire the chimps) to come; we didn’t think it would be as good as it is,” Jensvold said.

Not far from Ellensburg, in Cle Elum, another professional working in the field of chimp protection agreed. “This is way beyond recommendations from before. It’s amazing,” said Diana Goodrich, outreach director for Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest. “This is a really big step.”

As one of seven sanctuaries in the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance, it’s possible the Cle Elum facility could be in line to receive a retired chimpanzee from the NIH.

“It’s hard to tell. We’re working with the other sanctuaries, contemplating the best place for the chimps to go,” Goodrich said.

In addition to the facility in Cle Elum, which has housed chimpanzees since 2008, there is one other in the West, in Bend, Ore.

Room for more

Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest houses seven chimps on 26 acres. The facility is not open to the public, although staff members are looking to schedule several visitor days this summer, Goodrich said.

She noted that the Cle Elum sanctuary is already operating at near capacity, but they’re keeping an open mind about adding more chimps. ”If they were a really good fit, we could maybe add two or three.”

A good fit means how well they could be integrated in with the seven chimpanzees already there. She explained that Cle Elum doesn’t have a separate area to introduce new chimpanzees to the facility. That means any new chimps would have to be young ones, to make sure they hadn’t developed territorial ways yet, so they could fit in with the already established population. Additional chimpanzees could also be accepted if the facility undergoes an expansion, but that would require more funds.

Like the Cle Elum sanctuary, the chimpanzee institute at CWU has a mission to protect the primates, but it also is a research facility. Founded in 1980, the institute seeks to increase the understanding of both human and chimpanzee communication. Chimps there learn sign language and use signs to communicate with each other and humans. Jensvold described that as noninvasive research, as opposed to the biomedical type in which chimpanzees are given injections and drugs and kept in very confined quarters.

In fact, the NIH-proposed guidelines make specific recommendations for space required to house retired chimpanzees: facilities should encompass at least 1,000 square feet per chimpanzee, with a minimum of seven chimps in a group in order to socialize. There should also be year-round access to the outdoors.

Jensvold called those recommendations “outstanding.”

It’s unlikely that any of the 300-plus government-owned chimpanzees would end up at the CWU institute. Jensvold seconded Goodrich’s wariness of introducing adults to already established chimpanzee communities. A further roadblock for the institute is that many government-housed chimpanzees have been challenged with communicable diseases during medical research. Since graduate students work with chimpanzees, that means CWU couldn’t accept those chimps for reasons of student safety.

That said, Jensvold is hoping to expand chimpanzee numbers, especially after one of their group, 36-year-old Dar, died last November. That left only two chimpanzees living at the institute, which at 7,000 square feet, could house several more.

Jensvold explained she would like to introduce a group of three younger chimpanzees, perhaps those who have been kept as pets or used in the entertainment industry. Estimates of the number of chimpanzees who live in private labs or other facilities ranges between 200-400.

“I’m very uncomfortable only having two chimpanzees” Jensvold said. “They’re very social critters, so this is not ideal. “

She said it would be interesting to see if the two remaining chimpanzees at the institute, Loulis and Tatu, would teach new ones to sign.

Funding, future unclear

What’s unclear, however, is the funding source. While the university owns and maintains the building and pays some salaries, about half the funding comes from the Friends of Washoe, a nonprofit that supports the work there.

Funding could also be an issue at the Cle Elum sanctuary. “One of the big questions is will there be money that goes with the chimpanzees to the sanctuaries?” Goodrich noted.

Another area of concern, she pointed out, is the fate of about 50 chimpanzees the government is holding back from retirement in case they’re needed for studies later.

“I’m not super happy about the 50 chimps kept in reserve,” Goodrich said.

Still, she added, 10 years ago she never thought that chimpanzee protection would have evolved to the point where the government is considering retiring more than 300 animals.

What comes next is a 60-day waiting period for the public to weigh in on the suggested NIH guidelines, then a final decision will be made.

Goodrich is optimistic that the guidelines will be accepted.

“That’s good because it acknowledges that we share the planet with other species and our needs and desires don’t necessarily outweigh the needs of other species,” she said.

• Jane Gargas can be reached at 509-577-7690 or jgargas@yakimaherald.com.