Captive U.S. Chimps Get Some Long-Awaited Love

As our closest relatives here on Earth, chimps hold a special place in human hearts. But for the past two decades, chimps have also held a special and unenviable place under U.S. law: They are the only species where captive individuals are not given the same protection as their wild peers. 

Now, thanks to tireless petitioning by the Jane Goodall Institute, the U.S. Humane Society (HSUS), and other animal welfare groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has proposed a new rule which would give endangered species status and protection to all chimps, whether in the forest of Cameroon, or in a biomedical lab in Texas. 

“I was so pleased to hear about the proposed rule. This is exceptional news for all chimpanzees and for all the petitioners, especially The Humane Society of the United States, who have worked so hard on this issue,” said Dr. Jane Goodall at a press conference. “This decision gives me hope that we truly have begun to understand that our attitudes toward treatment of our closest living relatives must change. I congratulate the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for this very important decision.”

Wild chimpanzees, whose numbers have declined by 65 percent in the last 30 years, have been listed as endangered since 1990 under the Endangered Species Act. However, for the first and (to date) last time in U.S. history, captive chimps were classified separately and only granted the status of threatened. Jane Goodall attributes that unprecedented decision to the intense research into HIV and AIDS treatment that made lab chimps seem indispensable. 

“We were afraid that if we insisted that all chimps be given endangered status, none of them would get the protection,” explained Goodall. “It was a compromise that we have been trying to rectify ever since.”

Currently, there are about 2,000 chimps in captivity in the U.S., excluding zoos. If the USFWS-proposed rule becomes law, that number is expected to drastically reduce.

Additionally, the use of chimps in biomedical research may quickly become a thing of the past. Under the newly proposed law, anyone applying to use chimps for a project that may cause them harm would need to fill out a special application from USFWS, which would be used to determine if the proposed use would contribute to conservation of the species. Kathleen Conlee, Vice President of Animal Research Issues at HSUS, gives the example of hepatitis research, fo which chimps have long been used. Because chimps themselves cannot contract hepatitis, this use would likely not qualify under the new rules.

Tomorrow, the proposed rule goes to public review for 60 days. After that period, the USFWS has one year in which it must respond to questions and concerns raised by the public before the proposal can become law. 

Even as this process continues, the National Institute of Health is deliberating on recommendations to retire 90 percent of the 350 government-owned research chimps. According to Conleee, the majority of the released chimps would probably end up at a sanctaury in Louisiana called Chimp Haven, where they would be able to live the rest of their lives as normally and naturally as possible. The U.S. is the only developed country that still uses chimpanzees for invasive research and testing

They look up at the sky for the first time in maybe 50 years and just stare at it in amazement.

“I’ve seen chimps, retired from research labs, released in Chimp Haven before, and it just chokes me up,” said Conlee. “They look up at the sky for the first time in maybe 50 years and just stare at it in amazement. They touch each other and groom one another, no longer separated by bars and it’s just beautiful and heart-wrenching at the same time.”

“Our hope is that this proposal will ignite renewed public interest in the status of chimpanzees in the wild, as well as an appreciation for the natural connections to wild things and wild places that sustain us all,” said Dan Ashe, Director of USFWS. 

If approved, the law could go into effect within a year.