Captive U.S. Chimpanzees Get New Status as Endangered Species

July 21, 2015

More than 1,7001 chimpanzees held by private and government entities across the United States are to receive stronger legal protections against abuse and exploitation following an announcement in June 2015 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

The FWS decision to lift the status of all U.S.-based captive chimpanzees from “threatened” to “endangered” means that any company, agency, or individual intending to use chimpanzees in a manner that causes them harm or harassment must first qualify for a permit.

“With this ruling we have a lot more tools to prevent abuses from happening,” says Anna Fostic, an attorney with The Humane Society of the United States, one of eight animal-welfare and wildlife-conservation groups2 whose 2010 petition prompted an official FWS review of chimpanzees’ status.

Of the captive chimpanzees in the United States, more than 730 remain in government or private research facilities; some 540 have been transferred to sanctuaries; approximately 360 to 400 are held in zoos; and as many as 100 are kept as pets or held by breeders or dealers.3

According to the FWS, permits will be issued only for “scientific purposes to benefit wild chimpanzees or to enhance the propagation or survival of chimpanzees.”

Until last year, the United States was one of only two countries worldwide (Gabon, in central Africa, being the second) where biomedical research on chimpanzees continued. This ruling brings the U.S. government into compliance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, signed by 181 nations.

The European Union banned the practice in 2010, and several countries in Europe have complete bans on all great ape research. The U.S. government began phasing chimpanzees out of its own National Institutes of Health laboratories during the past three years with 50 individuals still reserved for research in cases of last resort.

Humans’ Closest Relatives
“Chimpanzees are as individual as human beings are,” says Dr. Jocelyn Bezner, a senior veterinarian for Save the Chimps, which provides sanctuary in Florida for approximately 255 individuals rescued from both government and private laboratories.

“They have the same emotions that we do: anger, joy, depression, and loss. We’ve watched them grieve the chimps that have passed away. You have to understand each individual to know how to help them.”

Although worldwide statistics are uncertain, the best estimates point to at least 1,000 additional chimpanzees living in captivity in Europe—where 740 reside in zoos and 170 in sanctuaries4—and some 990 in Africa, rescued from illegal capture and receiving care in facilities accredited by the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA).

Chimpanzees, the most populous of the great apes—all of which are considered “endangered,” according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature—are estimated to number between 290,000 and up to 400,000,5 with the largest groups found in the central African countries of Gabon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Cameroon.

All their populations are declining due to poaching, habitat loss, and disease transmitted by humans; and they have completely disappeared from Gambia, Burkina Faso, Benin, and Togo. Of the four chimpanzee subspecies, all of them endangered, the Nigeria-Cameroon is at greatest risk, with between 3,500 and 9,000 individuals remaining.

Setting High Standards for Safe Havens
Strong standards established by PASA and adopted by 22 member sanctuaries in 12 African countries are among the significant measures that have been implemented in recent years to ensure the humane and appropriate treatment and rehabilitation of chimpanzees that have been orphaned, abandoned, and displaced by human activity.

The Ohio-based North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance, founded in 2010, establishes similarly high standards for primate care and for the management and sustainability of sanctuaries that house about one-fourth of the captive chimpanzees in the United States. Many of these sanctuaries also meet the criteria for membership in the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, which establishes standards addressing not only the quality of their housing, nutrition, and veterinary care but also their emotional well-being and need for mental stimulation.

Personhood, Not Property
Recognition of chimpanzees’ emotional capacity as autonomous, self-aware, and self-determined beings is central to several legal cases that are seeking writs of habeas corpus through courts in the United States and Brazil.

“Chimpanzees should be considered legal persons, not property. We have hundreds of pages of affidavits testifying to their capacity for autonomy,” says Natalie Prosin, executive director of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP).

In Argentina, a lawsuit brought by animal-rights advocates on behalf of Sandra, an orangutan living in a Buenos Aires zoo, led a judge in December 2014 to suggest that nonhuman animals are entitled to some rights.

Although Sandra has not been released, “The overall effect of the Argentine court’s decision was to call the public’s attention to the abuse of these animals and the fact that they deserve better treatment,” says biologist Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and contributor to the volume The Politics of Species, published in 2013.

Three cases in New York state courts are testing the legal limits of personhood. Although judges have thus far rejected bids for the release of Tommy—a caged chimpanzee held by a private owner in an upstate used trailer lot—and Kiko, caged in a storefront, NhRP is pursuing appeals.

Most recently, in May 2015, Judge Barbara Jaffe of the New York County Supreme Court in Manhattan heard NhRP’s case of Hercules and Leo, young male chimpanzees owned by the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana, housed at Stonybook University, and believed to be used in locomotion research.

A decision in this case—the first time this court had heard arguments regarding the legality of detaining a nonhuman animal—could lead to their release. Prosin says that NhRP will continue to file writs of habeas corpus on behalf of the most cognitively complex species of animals, including chimpanzees. “We must continue to work to break down the wall that separates humans from nonhumans in our legal system,” she says. (accessed July 15, 2015).

2Humane Society of the United States, American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, Jane Goodall Institute, Wildlife Conservation Society, Pan African Sanctuary Alliance, Fund for Animals, Humane Society International, and New England Anti-Vivisection Society.

3Data sourced from (accessed July 15, 2015) and Rainer, H., White, A., & Lanjouw, A. (2014.) State of the Apes: Extractive Industries and Ape Conservation. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, p. 291–292.

4State of the Apes p. 288

5State of the Apes p. 255

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