By Nicole Rivard

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) corrected a 25-year-old mistake today. 

The agency announced that it has listed captive and wild chimpanzees as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), effective September 14th. The agency previously recognized wild chimpanzees as endangered, yet captive chimpanzees were deprived of such protection. This “split-listing,” enacted in 1990, has facilitated the exploitation of captive chimpanzees in the United States.

“Chimpanzees were originally protected as a threatened species under the ESA back in 1976. In 1990, the USFWS reclassified wild chimpanzees as endangered but at that point and time retained a threatened classification for chimpanzees held in captivity,” explained Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “That was a well-intentioned decision but we now realize that it was a mistake.

“At the time we felt that it was important to encourage captive breeding of chimpanzees to expand the captive population, and reduce incentive to capture chimpanzees from the wild. But we actually did was expand a culture and attitude of treating these animals as commodities for research, sale, import and export and for entertainment. And we believe that has undermined the conservation of chimpanzees in the wild.”

The split-listing in 1990 reflected strong opposition from the medical community who wrongly believed that chimpanzees were necessary for its HIV/AIDs research. 

“USFWS' decision to protect all chimpanzees is an essential next step toward elevating their importance to Americans and worldwide,” said New England Anti-Vivisection Society President Dr. Theodora Capaldo. “Had their now endangered status applied to those in captivity decades ago, it would not have completely prohibited using chimpanzees in research, but it would have severely limited the ways in which they were. Like the Institute of Medicine’s 2011 finding that 'most current biomedical research use of chimpanzees is not necessary,' and the NIH’s 2013 decision to retire the vast majority of their chimpanzees, this FWS decision continues momentum – adding another barrier to unnecessary and non-productive research purportedly to benefit humans. We stand on ethically and scientifically firmer ground as we move closer toward ending atrocities under the guise of 'necessary' research. Our moral commitment as a humane nation was remembered today in FWS Director Dan Ashe's welcomed announcement.”

Friends of Animals knows all too well the effects of treating chimpanzees as commodities since it manages Primarily Primates in San Antonio, Texas, which is home to more than 400 animals exploited by the exotic pet trade, research and entertainment, including more than 40 chimpanzees, half of whom were exploited by research. 

FoA also is dedicated to helping chimpanzees abroad.  In a November 2008 landmark agreement with the Gambian government, Friends of Animals agreed to help fund and support the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project, an island sanctuary located in the River Gambia National Park. It is home to some 99 chimpanzees, who live in relative freedom—without bars or cages—on three of the national park’s five islands. Primatologist Janis Carter, who has worked with the national park’s chimpanzees for three decades, is director. Many of the refuge’s chimpanzees were confiscated as orphans of parents killed by hunters for bushmeat or for the entertainment industry, or other forms of exploitation. Some were voluntarily relinquished by people who had unwisely tried to make them into pets.

Michael Harris, director of FoA’s wildlife law program, is optimistic about the endangered status of captive chimpanzees. “The decision to uplist the chimpanzee to endangered status is a significant victory in the fight to save Africa’s wildlife, and FoA hopes that this action will also stop the exploitation of chimpanzees here in the United States where they are too often used and abused for our entertainment,” Harris said.

USFWS expects the increased federal protection of captive chimpanzees is expected to curb the use of chimpanzees in invasive biomedical research, interstate trade as pets and use by the entertainment industry.

Ashe explained that permit under the ESA will now be required for all prohibited activities for both wild and captive chimpanzees. Sale across state lines will require a permit, a permit will be necessary to import or export a captive chimpanzee — any activities that are likely to result in distress or injury or harm to chimpanzees will require a permit. 

“Individuals and organizations requesting these permits will need to meet some very specific criteria,” Ashe said. “They will have to document that the activity for which they are requesting a permit would be either for activities that enhance the species survival in the wild or scientific research that directly benefits wild chimpanzees. We believe this action will enable us to ensure that activities affecting all chimpanzees will contribute to enhancement of the survival of the species in the wild. 

Harris explained that under the special 4(d) rule when species are listed as threatened, there are less legal protections for chimpanzees and their progeny who were imported into this country legally. However, endangered status eliminates that rule altogether. “It would be illegal to trade chimps between individuals in different states without a section 10 permit,” Harris said. “Wholly intrastate trades would still be allowed, but now there is even more pressure on the states to stop that as well.”

Once millions of chimps existed in the wild of Africa, and scientists estimate that today probably between 300 and 400 thousand wild chimpanzees are scattered across some 22 countries in Africa. Throughout the range of the species, deforestation is destroying and fragmenting the forest they call home. 

“We see widespread poaching, capture for the pet trade and outbreaks of disease that are further impeding the chimpanzees ability to sustain viable populations in the wild,” Ashe said. “We hope that our decision will ignite a new public interest in the status of wild chimpanzees as well as an appreciation for the wild things and places that sustain us all.”

Jane Goodall, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, praised the agency for its decision, saying it represents the steps society has taken in terms of understanding it has not been treating chimpanzees with the respect that they deserve. But, she says, the U.S. has further to go. Goodall went on to describe the damaging effects exploiting chimpanzees in entertainment can have on the species as a whole.

“We’ve been in Africa studying chimpanzees for 55 years. I remember so well at the beginning that the scientific establishment told me that chimpanzees couldn’t have personalities, couldn’t have minds, couldn’t be capable of any kind of rational thought, and certainly couldn’t have emotions because those were unique to the human animal,” Goodall said. “This announcement today is really, really exciting. I feel a lot of things are being vindicated…however we have further to go.

“The cruelty to chimpanzees trained for the circus, advertising and movies, and chimpanzees kept as pets—all of this is damaging to captive chimpanzees in many ways. The young ones who are trained as small infants never learn how to behave as chimpanzees. They are stuck between two worlds. They haven’t learned how to be a chimpanzee and they could never become a human. Their situation is really, really difficult and deserves our sincere consideration as being a form of cruelty and definitely leading to psychological trauma.”

And chimpanzees appearing in entertainment has only fueled the demand for capturing infant chimps in the wild, says Goodall, pointing out there is a “surging new demand for chimps as pets in Asia.” 

“To capture an infant chimp you must shoot the mother,” Goodall said. “The infant is then dragged from her dead body, very often injured. Other chimpanzees in the group hear the cries of distress may try to come in to help rescue the infant and be shot themselves. Chimpanzees are slow breeding—the female doesn’t have her first baby until she is 12 or 13 and then only one every five years. So in that way, the exploitation of chimps in America can have a devastating effect on our efforts to conserve them in Africa,” Goodall said.