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Captive Chimpanzees in U.S. May Get Status Bump to Endangered, Possibly Affecting Research

Captive chimp.

In keeping with an increasing drive to end most biomedical research with chimpanzees, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) today announced a proposal to upgrade the status of captive chimpanzee from "threatened" to "endangered." FWS has classified wild chimpanzees as endangered since 1990, but has given captive chimps less protection.

The proposed rule, which the public can comment on for the next 60 days, would create a new permitting process for scientific research with captive chimpanzees. In the future, if FWS finalizes the rule, scientists would receive permits only if their work aimed to "enhance the propagation or survival" of the species. FWS would also require permits for sale across state lines of chimpanzee cell lines, tissue, or blood.

How the rule change will impact National Institutes of Health (NIH)-supported chimpanzee research remains a bit murky. "NIH anticipates that critical NIH-funded research using chimpanzees will be able to continue under permits that may be required as part of the final rule," states an answer to a "Frequently Asked Question" on the FWS website. But given that most NIH-funded chimp research does not have conservation aims per se, it is not clear how will it meet the new permitting requirements if they're instituted.

Roddy Gabel, who oversees import/export permitting for FWS, explains that research projects that do not directly benefit wild chimpanzee could still receive permits via "enhancement," which is akin to a carbon-offset program. An institution, for example, might agree to make a financial contribution to a wild chimpanzee conservation effort in exchange for a permit to a conduct a specific study. "We're already talking to NIH and we'll be talking more intensively about what's possible to meet the enhancement requirement," Gabel says. "At this point we haven't closed the door on anything." The bottom line, he says, is if the rule is implemented, it gives FWS leverage to push for conservation benefits for wild chimpanzees. "People don't just get a free pass to use the animal when there's a conservation need out there," he says.

John VandeBerg, chief scientific officer at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio, decries the proposed rule change. "I am deeply disappointed," says VandeBerg, whose institution has one of the largest colonies of captive chimpanzees available for research. "Human and chimpanzee lives will be lost if the proposed rule is implemented."

The proposal comes in the wake of a petition filed in March 2010 by a law firm representing several animal conservation groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, the Jane Goodall Institute, and the Wildlife Conservation Society. The petition largely focused on the use of chimpanzees in the entertainment and pet industries, contending that this ultimately harmed conservation efforts. It also was highly critical of biomedical research with our closest relatives. FWS's website posts blurbs from several of the petitioners strongly backing the proposed change.

As FWS explained in the proposed rule, which it also made available online, staffers subsequently reviewed the issue in great detail and concluded that the Endangered Species Act "does not allow for captive‐held animals to be assigned separate legal status from their wild counterparts on the basis of their captive state." FWS explicitly did not side with the petitioners, however, with regard to the assertions about the negative conservation effects of pet and "entertainment" chimpanzees. "[W]e did not find evidence that this situation was a significant driver in the status of the species," the agency concluded. The rule would, however, require permits for sale of pet chimpanzees between states.

Even though FWS did not agree with a central tenet of the petition, Kathleen Conlee, vice president for animal research at the Humane Society of the United States, applauded the proposed rule. "Importantly, now if anyone proposes to use a chimpanzee in a harmful way, there will be an opportunity for us to comment on these permits because there will be a layer of transparency," Conlee said. The ability for the public to scrutinize permits, she says, will be especially important with captive "research" chimpanzees involved in studies that do not receive NIH funding.

The FWS proposal comes as the need for chimpanzees in biomedical research has come under question. According to a December 2011 report by an Institute of Medicine (IOM) committee, Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research, the United States then had 937 captive chimpanzees available for research, 612 of which NIH supported. Between 2001 and 2010, NIH funded 110 chimpanzee-related studies, and 44 of them involved hepatitis research. Other projects focused on neuroscience, comparative genomics, and behavioral research.

The committee, however, concluded that "most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary." It also noted that although there were several levels of review for chimpanzee experiments, "no uniform set of criteria" were used by NIH to assess their necessity.

In January, the NIH's Council of Councils backed the IOM report, recommending that NIH revamp the review process for future chimpanzee experiments and retire most of the animals it owns to sanctuaries. It recommended NIH maintain a colony with just about 50 chimps. NIH Director Francis Collins is expected to announce his decision about the future of NIH-supported chimpanzee research in the next few weeks.