It’s a momentous day for chimpanzees, in captive settings in the U.S. and in the wilds where they still survive in their range states in Africa. About three years after The HSUS and a diverse coalition of groups filed a legal petition to extend federal protection to captive chimpanzees, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued a proposed rule that would list all chimpanzees, whether wild or in captivity, as endangered.
As I’ve discussed in a previous blog, captive chimpanzees in the U.S. have long been deprived of protections that their wild counterparts receive under federal law, through an unusual “split listing” approach that left captive chimps largely unprotected. The split-listing has allowed for captive chimpanzees to be exploited for experimentation, entertainment, and even the pet trade. Scientific studies show these captive uses actually hurt conservation efforts in the wild by, for example, leading the public to believe that chimpanzees are not actually endangered, and reinforcing negative conservation attitudes. This exploitation and the resultant erosion of public support is unacceptable given that the number of wild chimpanzees has been declining for decades, and that these highly intelligent animals are in danger of becoming extinct.
Kathy Milani/The HSUS
The HSUS, along with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Jane Goodall Institute, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance, The Fund for Animals, Humane Society International, and the New England Anti-Vivisection Society submitted a petition, prepared by HSUS attorneys, to list all chimpanzees as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act, regardless of whether they are captive or wild. The petition included extensive scientific evidence demonstrating the need for such a change in regulations, and in September of 2011 the agency initiated a formal status review of the species. The agency received more than 50,000 responses to their request for public input from scientists, conservation and animal protection groups, members of Congress, and the general public – the vast majority in favor of granting the request. We owe a special debt of thanks to Jon Stryker and the Arcus Foundation for their support of our efforts and their broader work to help the great apes.
This proposed rule comes on the heels of another decision by USFWS which also signals a big change for endangered species living in captivity. Last week, the USFWS denied petitions submitted by the Exotic Wildlife Association and Safari Club International that asked the agency to remove the captive populations of three endangered antelope species from the endangered species list – in effect split-listing the species so that the captive populations would not receive protection, while wild antelopes would continue to be protected under the ESA. Both of the trophy hunting organizations argued in their petitions that the differential treatment of captive chimpanzees was precedent for a similar rule for antelopes. But the USFWS did not take the bait, instead announcing a new policy that such split-listings are unlawful under the ESA and thus taking a great step forward for captive endangered species.
But today is largely a celebration for chimps. With recent announcements by the National Institutes of Health about moving chimps from laboratories to sanctuaries, it’s been an exciting turn-around in the fortunes of our closest living relatives. Much work remains, in a practical sense, to get the chimps out of labs, private homes, and television commercials, but we are on the path, and today’s announcement brings us closer to our aspirations for these great apes.