Resurrecting a heated debate that began in 1987, a petition has led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to announce today  that it has initiated a review of whether it should "uplist" the status of captive chimpanzees from "threatened" to "endangered." The 144-page petition, spearheaded by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and endorsed by seven other groups, contends that endangered status will grant protections under the Endangered Species Act that do not currently exist for the estimated 2150 captive chimpanzees that now live in the United States. "The current status does not help conservation," says Kathleen Conlee of HSUS.
Much of the petition focuses on the "sanctioned exploitation" of captive chimpanzees by the entertainment industry, as well as on the existing U.S. laws and regulations that allow people to keep the primates as pets. But these categories only account for about 260 animals; nearly half the captive chimp population consists of animals in biomedical research laboratories, which the petition claims are "often inhumanely treated." The petition does not address current U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations that monitor these laboratories, but insists that an uplisting by FWS will improve their lot. "It is clear that exploitation of this species for biomedical purposes has not positively benefitted chimpanzees in captivity or in the wild; in addition to resulting in mistreatment of individual chimpanzees, such use actively undermines chimpanzee conservation," the petition states.
Vanessa Kauffman, an FWS spokesperson, notes that the decision to review the status of captive chimpanzees is basically an opportunity for the public to offer comments over the next 60 days. "At this point, we don't surmise what could change," says Kauffman.
Because of a similar petition in 1987, FWS in 1990 raised the status of wild chimpanzees to endangered. But, after lobbying from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and facilities that conduct biomedical research with these great apes, the agency decided the chimpanzees in captivity should be given only threatened status. This unusual split listing is "scientifically unjustifiable," the petition contends. But at the time, FWS asserted that self-sustaining, captive breeding groups fostered conservation aims by reducing the likelihood that poachers and the like would remove chimpanzees from the wild.
The last time FWS examined this issue, chimpanzees were a cornerstone of AIDS vaccine research and NIH had an active breeding program. No less than the NIH director then, James Wyngaarden, wrote to the agency to protest the reclassification, arguing that it could "significantly compromise our current ability to make selective use of chimpanzees in research to fight human disease." A chimpanzee researcher at what is now called Yerkes National Primate Research Center at the time went further in his warnings. "When the pandemic of AIDS becomes a truly frightening thing, humans will not stand by and watch their own species reduced while they protect animals that could help test vaccines and drugs," Frederick King said in a 1988 issue of Science . Researchers further worried that endangered status for captive chimps could create massive red tape for their studies.
Today, no one conducts AIDS vaccine experiments with chimpanzees, and the breeding program was stopped more than 15 years ago. Legislation now before Congress, the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act , which HSUS and several other petitioners have helped craft, calls for an end to all invasive biomedical research with chimpanzees. An Institute of Medicine committee , at NIH's behest, is also currently studying the use of chimpanzees in biomedical and behavioral research.
ScienceInsider contacted NIH Director Francis Collins for comment today, but there was no immediate response. Barbara Alving, who heads the division of NIH that oversees the 500 or so chimpanzees that it owns, was traveling and unavailable for comment, as was the head of Yerkes. Several other researchers who study captive chimpanzees did not respond to interview requests. Only one scientist, who conducts noninvasive studies on chimps, would comment, but insisted on not being named. "It's entirely unclear what this implies from a policymaking standpoint," the scientist said. "On the one hand it might make chimpanzees less useful for scientific research, even noninvasive studies that no one would have any quarrels with. But then again, if the chimpanzees NIH holds are deemed endangered, Fish and Wildlife could require breeding of the animals."
Alexandra Thornton, an executive vice president with the Jane Goodall Institute—a co-petitioner—says she doubts FWS would make such a move. "One could equally say they could be prevented from breeding because it would create more endangered species," says Thornton, who is also a lawyer.
But the practical implications of uplisting the status of captive chimpanzees remain murky even to proponents of the change. In the past, conservationists wanted to list captive chimpanzee as endangered in part to prevent laboratories in the United States from importing captive chimpanzees in Africa. They also wanted to better monitor captive chimpanzees, which endangered status would allow. The petition does not mention either of these issues.
The central argument in the petition revolves around chimpanzees used in the entertainment industry, which it says "misleads the public into believing that chimpanzees are well protected in the wild, thereby reinforcing negative conservation attitudes and inhibiting efforts to raise awareness of the species' plight." Thornton adds that there is a "hypocrisy" conservationists must confront: They ask Africans not to slaughter chimpanzees for food or poach them for pets, but the United States continues to allow them to be commercialized. "At a minimum, we'd like to see a level of scrutiny that just isn't happening right now," she says, stressing that wild populations have declined substantially. "We don't have a lot of time left."