Without that oversight, they have been held in pens, bought and sold for research, and poked, prodded and injected with potions to find cures that might benefit humans.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has changed that by announcing new rules that pull captive chimpanzees under the umbrella of federal protection.
The designation put an end to the service’s only “split listing” under the Endangered Species Act in its history, designed in 1990 to allow the National Institutes of Health to fund medical experiments using captive chimps.
Under rules that go into effect in September, importing and exporting chimpanzees across U.S. borders, and across state borders, for biomedical research will require federal permits issued by Fish and Wildlife.
When the new rules were proposed two years ago following a request by primate specialist Jane Goodall and the Humane Society of the United States, agency Director Dan Ashe called the earlier decision to list wild chimps as endangered and captive chimps as threatened, with less protection, “flawed,” and said the proposal “would correct this inconsistency.”
Ashe said the new rule is a clear message that, contrary to popular belief, the survival of all chimps is threatened. More than a million have disappeared from the wild since the beginning of the 20th century, according to estimates by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
Millions of chimps once roamed the wild but, as humans invade chimpanzee habitats to create farms and hunt the animals for meat, fewer than 300,000 remain, according to IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species.
“Extending captive chimpanzees the protections afforded their endangered cousins in the wild will ensure humane treatment and restrict commercial activities under the Endangered Species Act,” Ashe said. “The decision responds to growing threats to the species and aligns the chimpanzee’s status with existing legal requirements. Meanwhile, we will continue to work with range states to ensure the continued survival and recovery of chimpanzees in the wild.”
Although the rule hurts an industry that trades chimps as exotic pets for entertainment uses, such as circuses and movies, it hits medical research in the United States the hardest. The U.S. is the only developed nation that continues to use apes for research, at the insistence of the NIH. European nations banned the practice years ago, though they continue to use large numbers of rhesus macaques and spider monkeys for tests.
But in recent years, after numerous petitions and badgering by animal rights activists such as the Humane Society and the Jane Goodall Institute, the NIH started to change its thinking. The proposal of new rules by Fish and Wildlife in 2013 dovetailed with recent findings by the Institute of Medicine and an NIH advisory panel that use of chimps for research on human diseases was no longer necessary.
At the start of that year, the NIH’s Council of Councils, an advisory group, proposed to severely restrict medical and behavioral research on chimps and to send most research chimps into retirement.
By June, the NIH decided to phase out the funding and use of nearly 400 chimps housed at facilities across the country, mostly in New Mexico and Texas. The agency said it would place all but 50 in sanctuaries, Director Francis Collins said at the time. The 50 would be kept for research, he said.
Animal rights activists applauded the rule. “It’s another barrier to using chimpanzees, providing momentum to our efforts to retire these animals” from research, Jonathan Lovvorn, chief counsel of the Humane Society, said in a statement. “Hopefully, this sends a strong signal to not even attempt to use these animals.”
“This will be enormously beneficial to individuals in inappropriate captive conditions,” said Jane Goodall, founder of her namesake institute and a U.N. messenger of peace. “As such, it is a tremendously significant decision which will be welcomed by everyone concerned with the well-being of our closest living relatives.”