U.S. Grants Captive Chimpanzees Endangered Species Status, Prohibiting Most Research on Them

Captive chimps now have the same protections as wild ones

Chi King/ Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Studying human’s close living relatives, chimpanzees, has offered tons of insight into the evolution of human intelligence — for example, researchers now know that human babies and chimp babies use similar gestures. But along the way, humanity’s view of chimps is changing too. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) just announced that even captive chimpanzees are considered an endangered species. The move spells an end to most research on chimpanzees, reports Sara Reardon for Nature

Under the new rules, the research can only continue on captive chimps if it benefits chimpanzees in the wild by aiding their survival and propagation. Already, some research agencies had moved in this direction. In 2013, the U.S. National Institutes of Health started to send their research animals into retirement. The animals they kept in research labs after that decision were retained in the case of some kind of outbreak that affected both humans and chimpanzees. These leftover chimps would serve as the test subjects for any kind of cures or vaccines that this potential future disease might require. These new protections will make the restrictions on those possible future tests even tighter. 

Reardon reports:

The FWS proposed the rule in 2013 to close a loophole that exempted captive chimps from the Endangered Species Act protections that had already been given to their wild counterparts. Under the law, it is illegal to import or export an endangered animal, or to “harm, harass, kill [or] injure” one.

The new regulation will extend these limits to more than 700 chimps in US research laboratories, as well as animals in zoos or entertainment venues such as circuses. The FWS rule also makes it illegal to sell chimpanzee blood, cell lines or tissue across state lines without a permit.

Until now, there was a difference between the  status of captive chimps and their wild relatives. Only chimpanzees were split this way under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a separation that some, including the Humane Society of the United States and the Jane Goodall Institute, felt was in error, reports David Grimm for Science. Grimm writes:

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

When [FWS] 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.

The news should be well-received by animal rights groups such as the Nonhuman Rights Project. Evidence has been mounting that chimpanzees are very intelligent creatures that perhaps deserve more rights than they’ve been afforded thus far. In April, a judge ruled that two chimps living at a Stony Brook University lab had the right to "fight their detention in court," reports Rachel Feltman for The Washington Post. Reardon reports that the court heard those arguments last month and a decision will come later this summer.

Jane Goodall attended the press conference announcing the decision, Grimm reports for Science. She now calls chimps "chimpanzee beings" instead of animals and says that giving captive chimps protections too "shows an awakening, a new consciousness."