ChimpCARE Helps Some of Our Closest Relatives Find a Better Future

October 15, 2010

Primatologist Steve Ross knows a lot about chimpanzees. He is supervisor of behavioral and cognitive researchat the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, and chairman of the Chimpanzee Species Survival Plan (SSP), an organization of accredited zoos that cooperatively manages the chimps living in those zoos.

But when Ross testified in front of Congress a few years ago to support a bill prohibiting interstate commercial trade of chimpanzees, he did not know the answer to a simple question posed to him by a member of Congress: “How many chimps are out there?”

“I realized we needed to define the scope of the problem,” Ross says. “We needed a comprehensive view.”

Creating a U.S. Chimpanzee “Census”

The number of chimps in the U.S., Ross now knows, is 2,073. Sadly, the number living outside of accredited zoos and sanctuaries is about 1,350. But that number is declining, thanks to the efforts of Project ChimpCARE  (Communication, Advocacy, Research and Education), an organization Ross created with funding from the Arcus Foundation. ChimpCARE’s goal is to locate, assess and advocate for chimpanzees, and ultimately to find appropriate housing and care for all of them.

Ross and colleague Vivian Vreeman have traveled all over the country to visit chimps and their owners. They have compiled what they believe is a complete and current record of each chimp in the U.S., and created an interactive map showing their location and status. View the map on the Project ChimpCARE website at

What they found are chimpanzees in a variety of settings. While many are well taken care of in accredited zoos and sanctuaries, an alarming number live without oversight or standards in unaccredited “roadside” zoos or sanctuaries, in invasive research centers, and as pets and performers.

Currently no federal legislation exists to govern commerce of chimpanzees, leaving individual states to legislate those matters. In fact, it is legal to own a chimp in most states, but the vast majority of private owners have neither the resources nor the knowledge to provide the appropriate care of this complex species. Chimpanzees require social companionship, mental stimulation and plenty of space to thrive.

Chimpanzee ownership is also not good for the humans involved. Although chimpanzees are cute and cuddly as babies and youngsters, by the time they are seven or eight years old, they grow into large, powerful, sometimes aggressive creatures. While these characteristics are perfectly normal in the wild, they are potentially dangerous to humans. Chimpanzees that have grown up without the company of fellow chimps, even the most beloved and pampered pets, are prone to dangerous and unpredictable behavior.

Finding the Right Habitat

Ross and Vreeman have also begun finding suitable homes in accredited zoos and sanctuaries for a number of chimpanzees. They recently facilitated the placement of 14 actor chimps into three accredited zoos, cooperatively working with the former owners to find the best opportunity for the chimps to securely and comfortably live out the rest of their lives. “Rather than point fingers, we approach chimp owners in a spirit of collaboration and information-sharing, and talk to them about their animals’ true needs and natures,” Ross says.

Another ChimpCARE goal is simply to educate the public about chimpanzees and promote understanding of these unique and fascinating creatures.  “Chimps are our closest relatives,” Ross reminds us. “For that reason alone they are worthy of appropriate care and respect. And given the animal welfare and public safety concerns that can come along with private ownership, it’s especially important that we address these issues as directly as possible.”

For more information, visit the Project ChimpCARE website at

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