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Chimpanzees: All Finally Listed as Endangered, Both Captive and Wild

Jul 05, 2015 08:20 PM EDT

(Photo : Pixabay)

It's official! The chimpanzee is a fully protected species in the United States regardless of whether it is a captive or wild animal. And that's good news for humanity's closest primate relative, as it means that all chimps in US labs will be 'retiring' from the exhausting (and arguably maddening) world of research.

"Extending captive chimpanzees the protections afforded their endangered cousins in the wild will ensure humane treatment and restrict commercial activities under the Endangered Species Act," Dan Ashe, Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) recently announced. "The decision responds to growing threats to the species and aligns the chimpanzee's status with existing legal requirements. Meanwhile, we will continue to work with range states to ensure the continued survival and recovery of chimpanzees in the wild."

The End of an Era

According to the Service, this change was more than five years in the making and will extend the same protections enjoyed by wild chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) to the well-over 700 chimps that can be found in US research labs. As a result, the majority of these animals will likely be 'retired' from labs, transferred to sanctuaries as space is made available. It will also forbid invasive research practices, designer breeding, and the import and export of chimpanzees - essentially hampering all scientific studies that could harm or even kill the animals.

The FWS rule also makes it illegal to sell chimpanzee blood, cell lines, or tissue samples across the continental US without a permit. (Scroll to read on...)

[Credit: Jane Goodall Institute / Jane Goodall]

"The United States is the only country actively involved in invasive biomedical research on captive chimpanzees," the Jane Goodall Institute explained in a recent statement. "Scientists use chimpanzees in an attempt to learn more about human diseases and develop treatments to save human lives, but a great many of such experiments have proven largely ineffective and have not led to advances in human medicine."

"Chimpanzees in laboratories live in a constant state of stress, under the relentless threat of physically invasive research protocols," the institute added. "Instead of keeping chimpanzees captive in stark research laboratories, science can benefit greatly from obtaining data in a non-invasive manner from wild chimpanzees living in protected areas and sanctuaries across Africa."

Nature World News has previously reported how research of this second variety has already helped us learn more about the development of tool use, language dialects, and other human-like behaviors. Many of these studies also involved lab-side experimentation, but with results that helped uncover threats to the declining species as a whole, such as parasitic infection and even Ebola. (Scroll to read on...)

Study: Do Chimpanzees Use Weight to Select Hammer Tools? PLOS ONE; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0041044
(Photo : Cornelia Schrauf, Josep Call,Koki Fuwa and Satoshi Hirata) Study: Do Chimpanzees Use Weight to Select Hammer Tools? PLOS ONE; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0041044

"Permits will be issued for these activities only for scientific purposes that benefit the species in the wild, or to enhance the propagation or survival of chimpanzees," the FWS added in an official release.

Beginning the Lab Chimp Extinction

But while this all sounds perfectly reasonable, many scientists are still rather upset about the new ruling.

"Practically speaking, [given] the process to get exceptions, I don't expect chimps will be a viable option [for medical research] anymore," Matt Bailey, executive vice president of the National Association for Biomedical Research in Washington DC, recently told Nature, the international weekly journal of science.

Bailey and his colleagues have made the augment that ending disease research on chimps would only slow medical advancements for both species. Additionally, a great many of those 700+ chimps housed in US labs are 'model' lab-animals, meaning that they were designed and raised for the sole purpose of biological research. Adapting to sanctuary life with naturally raised chimps would likely be uncomfortable for these animals (if not entirely unsuccessful) as their connection with the wild is tenuous at best.

However, if this description of "lab-purpose" chimpanzees makes you cringe, you're not alone. Public opinion of the chimpanzee and other great apes has radically changed in the past few decades, with some groups even rallying to have these thoughtful beings - once viewed as simple animals - granted "legal personhood." (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : pixabay)

"If those rights are provided to them, then they wouldn't be able to be 'prisoned unlawfully' - that is, they wouldn't be able to be kept in zoos or as pets or as entertainers," Steven Ross, with the Lincoln Park Zoo, explained to NWN in a past exclusive. "That is a bit of a radical strategy I think, because of course it raises all sorts of potential problems."

For instance, if a chimp were to kill a human being, would it be tried for murder or simply be put down?

By extending the 'endangered' status to captive chimps, the FWS can avoid these hard questions for now, while simultaneously ensuring that the concept of a designer-chimp becomes a thing of the past.

So Where Will They Go?

Fortunately, even if helping hundreds of lab chimps start a new life in sanctuaries sounds like a daunting task, it's not one that officials are unfamiliar with.

In June of 2013, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued a statement that it would "substantially reduce the use of chimpanzees in NIH-funded biomedical research and designate for retirement most of the chimpanzees it currently owns or support."

The decision saw nearly 310 chimps transferred from research centers to "ethologically appropriate facilities (i.e., as would occur in their natural environment)" with only 50 of the animals left for the completion on ongoing work. No new chimps were housed or bred for future research. (Scroll to read on...)


Still, transferring these animals takes time and money. It was only over this past winter that the first six of this 2013 group finally made their 300-mile journey from a lab in Bastrop, Texas to the sole federal sanctuary, Chimp Haven in Keithville, Louisiana.

"Since their arrival in December, the six are thriving in their new environment," the Haven happily reported. "Explorations have occurred. Pant hoots have echoed. And while tireless efforts are being made to ensure that more than 300 chimpanzees will also call Chimp Haven home, joy is found in these six and their new beginning." (Scroll to read on...)

A pair of Chimp Haven residents enjoying the spring weather.
(Photo : Chimp Haven via NIH) A pair of Chimp Haven residents enjoying the spring weather.

Those "tireless efforts" largely concern the fact that Chimp Haven is already nearly full capacity, with over 200 chimpanzees currently residing there. It is now undertaking a private fundraising campaign to allow expansion - work that will hopefully allow the sanctuary to take on double if not triple their current numbers.

And as for that fresh 700 the FWS is essentially forcing freedom upon? It's important to note that lab faculties could hold onto their captive chimps as long as they like, just as long as the animals are kept in good health and not used in invasive research. However, the obvious truth of the matter is that keeping a chimp is expensive, and if no research is coming out of it, it is very likely that scientists will soon be scrambling to find places like Chimp Haven as well.

These next several years then, will be a strange and chaotic time for the captive chimpanzee world. Still, it's hard to deny that a lot of good can come of this. And remember Rise of the Planet of the Apes? Sorry Caesar, looks like we get to dodge that bullet after all.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

 - follow Brian Stallard on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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