Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Project, answers a...

Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Project, answers a question outside Manhattan State Supreme Court, in New York, after a hearing, Wednesday, May 27, 2015. Credit: AP / Richard Drew

Two male chimpanzees that have been involved in studies at Stony Brook University since November 2010 will no longer be used for research and will be leaving the university, a professor and their owner said.

Susan Larson, an anatomical sciences professor at Stony Brook, said her experiments involving Hercules and Leo ended early this year and the pair of 9-year-old chimps will be leaving the university soon.

The chimps' retirement comes at a "fortuitous" time, Larson said.

In June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to classify all captive chimpanzees as endangered.

The change in classification means that anyone who imports or exports chimps over U.S. borders, takes samples such as blood, cells, or tissue from chimps, or sells chimps or their blood, cells, or tissue across state lines must obtain a permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Larson said she expects Hercules and Leo to be retired before the rule goes into effect Sept. 14.

The New Iberia Research Center at the University of Louisiana Lafayette, a research center that houses chimps and other primates, owns the pair and loaned them in 2010 to Stony Brook. The center said the chimps will no longer be used for research but wouldn't say when Hercules and Leo will leave Stony Brook.

Moved into the spotlightHercules and Leo gained attention when the Nonhuman Rights Project, a national advocacy organization whose goal is to change common law status for some animals from "things" to "persons," filed lawsuits attempting to gain the chimps "personhood."

Thursday, New York County Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe denied the group's request to elevate the chimps' legal status above the level of property.

Jaffe wrote that she is bound by a decision made by a higher court in the case of Tommy the chimpanzee that ruled that chimpanzees couldn't be recognized as people.

"The similarities between chimpanzees and humans inspire the empathy felt for a beloved pet," Jaffe wrote. "Efforts to extend legal rights to chimpanzees are thus understandable; someday they may even succeed."

The Nonhuman Rights Project initially had filed a lawsuit in Suffolk County seeking personhood for Hercules and Leo, but a state Supreme Court justice in Riverhead declined to hear the case.

Attorney Steven Wise, the project's founder and president, said he would appeal Jaffe's decision.

The goal of the lawsuit, he said, was to remove the chimps from Stony Brook and move them to Save the Chimps, an animal sanctuary in Florida.

Wise said earlier this week that he would potentially drop the lawsuit if Hercules and Leo were moved to a place "where they'll be respected, like Save the Chimps."

New Iberia has inquired about Hercules and Leo going to another sanctuary, Chimp Haven, which houses 202 chimpanzees and sits on 200 acres of land in Keithville, Louisiana, according to Cathy Willis Spraetz, president and CEO of Chimp Haven.

Wherever they go, it could take years before Hercules and Leo are integrated into a chimp colony, Spraetz said, because of the amount of time they have spent with humans.

Becoming chimps againAt Chimp Haven, new chimps are introduced to others through two mesh walls so they can't hurt one another, she said.

"It's a chance for them to get really close and say hello," Spraetz said, adding that it's easy to tell when the chimps like one another.

Researchers at Stony Brook have recently published at least two academic papers detailing findings from their research involving Hercules and Leo.

One of the studies, published online on Nov. 19, 2014, in the American Journal of Anthropology, theorizes that humans' earliest ancestors recovered energy while walking in a similar manner to modern chimpanzees.

Nathan Thompson, 28, a graduate student and a co-author of the study, said experiments at Stony Brook involved having the chimpanzees walk across four large "force platforms," or scientific-grade scales, which are about a half-meter long and a half-meter wide that recorded the amount of force produced in three directions simultaneously.

"It's like a runway at a fashion show and the middle of the runway is one big scale," he said.

A trainer, who Thompson said provides the chimps with stimulation and friendship, taught Hercules and Leo to walk or run for the experiments.

The study was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, which has provided Stony Brook researchers with multiple grants. One of the grants totaled more than $1.8 million, according to the foundation's website.

Another study published online last week in the Journal of Human Evolution provided the first detailed 3-D description of how chimpanzees walk on two legs, said Matthew O'Neill, assistant professor at the University of Arizona's College of Medicine. O'Neill was a professor at Stony Brook until a year ago.

For that study, researchers painted nontoxic markers on specific points of the chimps' pelvises and hind limbs. Researchers then tracked their movements with four high-speed cameras and put those points into a digital model, Thompson said.

Researchers at Stony Brook have studied chimpanzees on and off over the past 30 years, he said.

Using chimpanzees for research has become increasingly unique. In December 2011, the Institute of Medicine published a report assessing the necessity of using chimpanzees for biomedical and behavioral research.

Fewer used in researchIn response to the findings, the National Institutes of Health announced on June 26, 2013, plans to reduce the use of chimpanzees in NIH-funded biomedical research. Today, there are no biomedical research projects supported by the NIH using chimpanzees, according to a statement issued by the NIH.

"In the past probably 10 years, I don't think anybody's been able to work with chimpanzees in a direct way, in the way we were able to at Stony Brook," O'Neill said.

Thompson said he hasn't seen the chimps since research has been completed.

"It was a super-amazing experience," he said. "These are very special animals."

Hercules and Leo are housed within the Stony Brook Division of Laboratory Animal Research, which has been fully accredited for more than 30 years, university spokeswoman Lauren Sheprow said in a statement issued in 2013.

All research protocols are reviewed by the Stony Brook Institutional Animal Use and Care committee, she said.

The chimps are considered juveniles until they reach age 13 or 14, Larson said. Chimpanzees can live to be over 50 years old, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

"They like to play and are very friendly," she said.

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