Freedom of Information Act

Uncovering the truth

How many chimpanzees are still in U.S. laboratories? Who are they? What kinds of experiments were they subjected to? What are their living conditions?

The answers to these questions should be readily available to the public, but uncovering these facts is often a painstaking, lengthy process that in the end may yield little or confusing information. At worst, finding such information can be nearly impossible, a situation that allows the welfare of the animals used for biomedical research to be largely hidden from public view.

One of the most comprehensive and direct sources of information on what nonhuman species endure in research comes from former laboratory workers who feel compelled to speak about their experiences.

In our quest to provide accurate and insightful information, Project R&R welcomes any feedback or additional knowledge about the current or historic use of chimpanzees in U.S. labs.

The Freedom of Information Act: A crucial, but limited tool

The main tool for the public to use to obtain information about the work of federal agencies is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). FOIA is a crucial accountability tool, but the request process is slow, laborious, and sometimes expensive. The law has many loopholes that allow federal agencies to dodge or refuse information requests. It also applies only to documents available at federal government agencies.

To obtain information about chimpanzees in federal and private laboratories, Project R&R has submitted and resubmitted many FOIA requests. Unfortunately, it often takes months to obtain a response and when a response does arrive, it often cites numerous exemptions as grounds to withhold complete information. Portions of records may be deleted under nine FOIA exemptions, including information deemed to divulge trade secrets or commercial/financial information, or information for law enforcement purposes (such as a pending case related to animal welfare issues). (1) Such exemptions allow facilities to argue that sensitive records do not have to be disclosed. (This information is obtainable through FOIA.)

All laboratory facilities using nonhuman primates are required to abide by the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA). Research facilities must register with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and are subject to yearly inspections by USDA’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service (APHIS). This requirement does not apply to federal research laboratories such as the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, or the Department of Defense.

Under the AWA, laboratories are also required to submit an annual report to USDA/APHIS to include:

  • Stated compliance with the AWA
  • Assurance that researchers examined alternatives to painful procedures.
  • A list of the number and species of all animals used or held for teaching, research, experiments, or testing
  • A summary and explanation of all situations in which an animal was subjected to pain and distress without relief.

The AWA also requires that private facilities form oversight committees called Institutional Animal Care & Use Committees (IACUC), which are essentially self-policing committees whose members are selected by the head of the facility. These committees have a number of duties, including approving research protocols and conducting semi-annual reports noting any violations of or exceptions to AWA regulations. These reports, however, are not publicly accessible. Other information required to be maintained on-site by private facilities regarding their use of animals for research is also not publicly available. These records often provide crucial details to the actual day-to-day existence of animals in labs.

Limitations and issues with FOIA

Private companies and institutions using animals for research are not required to disclose to the public the ways in which they use them. Several laboratories have denied Project R&R’s FOIA requests on the grounds that they are a “private facility.” Even simple requests for basic information such as the status and number of chimpanzees in a lab may be rejected. For example, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and the Southwest National Primate Research Center are both designated as National Primate Research Center facilities and receive federal funds for primate research. Yet both have refused to disclose records requested under FOIA, claiming to be private facilities, and therefore not subject to federal disclosure laws, even though they receive public money.

While USDA/APHIS inspection reports and annual reports are available under FOIA, many animal advocacy groups have experienced ongoing problems obtaining such information. For example, in early summer 2004, Project R&R requested USDA animal welfare inspection reports from facilities housing chimpanzees. The requested documents were received in November 2005, nearly a year and a half later.

Problems with FOIA compliance

Over the years it has become increasingly difficult for public interest and advocacy groups to receive information about federal agencies through FOIA. In addition, animal protection organizations have also experienced excessive delays in the USDA’s  response to FOIA requests—in some cases for up to four years.

In 2002, under pressure from pro-research groups citing security concerns, the USDA removed research facilities’ annual reports and APHIS inspection reports from its website. (2) NEAVS, along with nine other animal protection organizations in the United States, joined the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) in submitting a formal request to the USDA, urging them to restore access to those documents on their website. (3)

In January 2005, HSUS filed a lawsuit against the USDA in response to both the removal of research facilities’ inspections and yearly reports and the excessive delays in answering FOIA requests. (4) That May, the Department of Justice finally ordered the USDA/APHIS to resume online posting of inspections and annual reports for U.S. research facilities. (5)

More public funding, less public disclosure

In his January 2005 State of the Union address, President Bush thanked the U.S. Congress for “doubling the funding for the National Institutes of Health.” Unfortunately, the Bush administration’s policy further restricted public information about government activities, including the funding of research involving chimpanzees and other nonhuman primates. While more taxpayer dollars were being spent, taxpayers knew less and less about the research they were funding.

Policy changes on releasing federal information are occurring. In 2009, President Barack Obama issued a Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies in support of government transparency and accountability through openness in response to FOIA requests from the public. This welcomed news came after years of long delays, partial fulfillment of requests, and outright rejections of FOIA requests made by Project R&R to labs holding chimpanzees owned or supported by the federal government. We continue to FOIA for information needed to help nonhuman primates in U.S. labs and hope that this and future policy changes will allow for greater transparency of the events occuring behind closed laboratory doors.

For more information


(1) 5 U.S.C. § 552 (b) (1-9)

(2) HSUS Asks USDA to Return Animal Research Information to Website

(3) Animal Protection Groups Urge USDA To Return Reports To Website

(4) HSUS Files Suit Against USDA over FOIA Delays

(5) USDA Agrees to Provide Online Animal Research Reports in Wake of HSUS Suit

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