James Franco, Alec Baldwin, Bill Maher and other celebrities are encouraging Congress to pass legislation that would release more than 500 federally owned chimpanzees into wildlife sanctuaries.

The celebrities are rallying behind a bill in the Senate that would prohibit the use of great apes for research. They say the animals are no longer needed for conducting experiments on human health issues.

"Other countries have already done away with experiments on great apes because of the serious scientific and ethical problems," Maher said in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). "ln fact, we are the only country to continue funding large-scale invasive experiments on chimpanzees."

The legislation would prohibit using federal funds to conduct research on apes, transfer the ownership of the federally owned apes to sanctuaries and set up a Treasury Fund for the creation of a sanctuary system for any remaining apes.

"The government waste attached to these seemingly small programs are actually significant sums of money," said Elizabeth Kucinich, director of government affairs for the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. "It costs the government tens of millions of dollars annually to house these chimpanzees for use; so it's not just an ethical and medical issue, it's also a fiscal issue."

Dr. Martin Wasserman, former state Health secretary for both Maryland and Oregon, testified before the Senate Tuesday in support of the bill, which would save the government nearly $300 million over the next 10 years.

"This important piece of legislation is a bill of recognition, appreciation, and sensitivity," he said. "It recognizes the genetic, social, and behavioral similarities of chimpanzees and humans, who are 95 to 98 percent genetically similar. It also acknowledges that the expression of these genes is dramatically different in chimpanzees and humans."

Baldwin wrote a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) earlier this year advocating for the apes, and Franco pledged to work with Congress to get the legislation passed.

“My New Years resolution is to work to stop testing on great apes and help pass the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act in 2012,” Franco said in a video for PCRM.

In a study released last year, the Institute of Medicine found that chimpanzee experiments are no longer needed to develop an HIV vaccine, hepatitis C antiviral drugs or treatments for other human illnesses, because medicine has found other ways to conduct the experiments.

The chimp bill has been introduced in the past three Congresses, receiving support from both Republicans and Democrats, but has yet to receive a floor vote.