As the government exits the business of using chimpanzees for scientific research, taxpayers just might go bananas over the animals' retirement tab.
The National Institutes of Health, the government's medical research arm, is spending about $12 million annually to care for the chimps currently and formerly used for research, some of it for a retirement sanctuary in Louisiana where the animals are housed.
And the agency is soon in danger of reaching a $30 million cumulative spending cap that Congress set for the retirement home, dubbed Chimp Haven. That means NIH will need to go to Congress or another source for more money.
Adding to the complication, the costs to taxpayers are rising.
In 2011, taxpayers supported 713 animals at a cost of $11.6 million, according to NIH records. But last year the price tag rose to $12.4 million, even though NIH supported 40 fewer chimps.
To put the whole program in perspective, the $12.4 million price tag last year is about half the tab that the Smithsonian reports it costs to run the entire National Zoo in Washington, D.C. And the NIH's average daily retirement cost of $50 per chimp is way more generous than the $133 per month that the government gives the average impoverished American in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps.
For creating an expensive creatures comfort program with no immediate end game, the NIH wins this week's Golden Hammer, awarded by the Washington Guardian to highlight an egregious example of government spending.
NIH spokeswoman Renate Myles said the money is used for all aspects of the chimps' care.
"The stated cost per day for a chimpanzee includes all costs associated with chimpanzee care: food, medicine, salaries for care staff and cost of maintaining the facility," she said. "The NIH chimpanzees receive annual physicals by trained veterinarians. They receive high-quality medical and dental care involving the same drugs - [for example] antibiotics and insulin - and procedures that were developed for human medicine."
The money also helps cover vacinations, as well as pay for animal behavioral staff that help ensure the animals are mentally as well as physically healthy, Myles said.
An advisory panel for the famed medical research agency decided in early January that most scientific testing using chimpanzees could be put to an end, such as some disease research. "Although the chimpanzee has been a valuable animal model in the past, most current biomedical use of chimpanzees is unnecessary," the panel said in a report.
The NIH is still debating a final decision on the recomendation, but as some of the chimps' services are no longer needed, the agency is looking for ways to retire the animals and send them to Chimp Haven, a 200-acre non-profit wildlife preserve south of Shreveport, La. But NIH has a congressionally-imposed limit of $30 million total it can spend on Chimp Haven, documents show, a cap it is expected to hit this summer.
Chimp Haven is an independent organization that is required to provide 25 percent of the cost for caring for the chimps. And the NIH reports that the number of animals and costs will diminish over time as the chimps die from natural causes.
Still, the NIH is covering 75 percent of the chimps' care. Officials so far haven't said what they'll do when the agency hits the $30 million cap.
Representatives for Chimp Haven did not return calls seeking comment.
While most Americans can applaud humane retirement of animals, the NIH has left taxpayers with a gorilla-sized bill already, and left the retired chimps up a tree with no clear plan on how it will proceed.