The federal government on Friday boosted protections for chimpanzees, formally declaring both captive and wild populations of the primates as endangered.
The action, from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, comes in response to a 2010 petition that prodded the agency to classify chimps in captivity the same way they did chimps in the wild. The petition was part of a long-running campaign by animal-rights activists to increase the protections for the animals that are among humans’ closest genetic cousins. Given their range of emotions and their level of understanding, chimps have long been afforded special protections that other animals – even monkeys – don’t get; Friday’s action boosts that even more.
As famed chimp researcher Jane Goodall said in a Q&A posted on her institute’s Web site: “I feel very relieved that all chimpanzees, whether they are captive or wild, will be listed as endangered, which means that captive chimpanzees will be recognized as members of an endangered species. Many people have worked for more than two decades to bring about this change and it is a relief to know that we have finally succeeded.”
She added that “there is still much to be done” in protecting chimps. “But this new listing is a huge step towards preventing much of the blatant exploitation that was possible before,” she said.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, an animal welfare organization, there are an estimated 172,000 to 300,000 chimpanzees still in African rainforests; they have been classified as endangered. The 1,724 in captivity in the U.S. have been classified as merely threatened, giving greater leeway to allow for their use in biomedical research and the entertainment and pet industries.
Friday’s rule, which will be published next week and effective in September, means that anyone who wants to use chimps in the U.S. in harmful ways will have to show the use will benefit the conservation of the species, the Humane Society said. They will also have to receive permits to do so.
“Hopefully, this sends a strong signal to not even attempt to use these animals,” Jonathan Lovvorn, the Humane Society’s chief counsel, said in a statement. He further called it “another barrier to using chimpanzees” and said it provided momentum to efforts to retire the animals completely from research.
The use of chimpanzees in biomedical research was once commonplace but has been severely curtailed – both because of the ethics of using animals so similar to humans in captive experiments and because scientists began to question the effectiveness of doing so. While chimps are genetically close to humans, there are enough differences that research on chimps doesn’t necessarily translate to humans. Beyond that, advances in laboratory techniques mean that knowledge once gained only by examining a live animal now can be learned in a petri dish.
McClatchy Newspapers examined the ethics and usefulness of chimp research in a three-part series in 2011, as the debate over their use was heating up. Those stories examined the science behind chimps’ use, as well as the long-term impact of a life in a lab.