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Chimpanzees in captivity will soon be considered endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Chimpanzees in captivity will soon be considered endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Cyril Ruoso/Corbis

Research chimps to be listed as 'endangered'

The presence of Jane Goodall was a giveaway. In a press conference today that featured the famed primatologist, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced that it will classify all captive chimpanzees as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The move gives captive chimps the same status as their wild counterparts, ending an odd split designation, and could deal a significant blow to biomedical research involving the animals. More than 700 chimps are involved in research in U.S. labs today.

“This decision will help us ensure that the world we pass along to our children and grandchildren will be filled with chimpanzees,” said USFWS Director Dan Ashe at the press conference. “We believe this action will ensure that activities affecting all chimpanzees will contribute to the survival of chimpanzees in the wild.”

USFWS has been considering the status change since a coalition of animal organizations—including the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the Jane Goodall Institute—petitioned it in 2010. The group claimed that research chimps were treated inhumanely and that the animals were too cognitively advanced to be kept in captivity. It also argued that USFWS had erred when, in 1990, it first listed wild chimpanzees as endangered but made the unusual move to keep captive chimps—including those used in research, zoos, and entertainment—listed as threatened. (All chimps earned that designation in 1976 due to threats from poaching, disease, and capture for research.) No other species has this split status, and USFWS hoped at the time that propagating chimps in captivity would reduce the need to take them from the wild. It also received pressure from the biomedical research community, which feared that an endangered listing would compromise HIV research and other important studies.  

“That was a well-intentioned decision, but now we realize it was a mistake,” Ashe said. “What we actually did was encourage a culture that treats these animals as a commodity.”

When USFWS reviewed its policy, it concluded that the ESA does not allow for a split designation. It also found that giving the estimated 1750 chimps in captivity a less protected status could create a way to “launder” wild chimps as captive ones, and that the split status had done little to reduce the threat to wild chimpanzees.

Under the new designation, which goes into effect on 14 September, anyone working with captive chimps in the United States must apply for a permit from USFWS. Permits, Ashe said, will be required for the sale and import of these animals, as well as for “any activities that are likely to result in stress or harm.” Organizations that want to continue working with chimpanzees will have to document that the work enhances the survival of the species and benefits chimps in the wild. That could include research that boosts habitat restoration or contributes to improved management. “We have been working closely with the NIH [National Institutes of Health] and the biomedical research community to make sure they understand the implications of our final rule,” Ashe said. “If anyone is actively engaged in chimpanzee research, they should apply for a permit now.”

Ashe said some biomedical research with chimps may be allowed to continue if it is critical for understanding human disease. “But the entity would have to make a [monetary] contribution or support conservation of wild chimpanzees.”

“This is a very exciting day,” Goodall said at the press conference. “It’s been a struggle to think of the chimpanzees exploited in medical research.” She has begun referring to chimps as “chimpanzee beings” instead of as “animals” and says the decision “shows an awakening, a new consciousness.”

HSUS also applauded the move. “We are extremely pleased with this momentous decision and look forward to getting more chimpanzees out of laboratories and into sanctuaries,” says Kathleen Conlee, the organization’s vice president of animal research issues. “We were sending the wrong message by using these animals so readily for research, entertainment, and as pets.” She says that even if the new status doesn’t completely end research on chimpanzees, the permitting process will make public all the work being done with these animals in pharmaceutical companies and other private research labs, which have not been subject to NIH scrutiny. “We hope this compels private labs to start thinking about sanctuaries for these animals.” 

The USFWS decision comes on the heels of an NIH announcement in 2013 that it would phase out most government-funded chimpanzee research and retire the majority of its research chimps. “This is an incredible one-two punch,” said HSUS President Wayne Pacelle, who was also part of the press conference.

Susan Larson, an anatomist at Stony Brook University in New York who has worked with lab chimps for decades, says the USFWS announcement adds yet another hurdle to studying these animals. “We already have to apply for grants, get institutional approval, and be subject to regular inspections,” she says. “This is going to make it increasingly difficult to get these projects off the ground.”

David Johnson says that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Johnson is the vice president of Cascades Biosciences Consultants Inc., which consults on biomedical research involving animals, and he has spent much of his career working with chimpanzees, including being the project director of the NIH’s Chimpanzee Management Plan and studying the animals to develop a hepatitis vaccine. “The chimpanzee is no longer an essential model in biomedical research,” he says. Still, he believes that some cognitive and other studies with chimps will continue. “This research will require some further justification, but I’m supportive of Fish and Wildlife’s decision,” he says. “I think it’s the right thing to do.”