U.S. to list chimpanzees as endangered

Published by Science Recorder | June 2013

by L. Clark Tate

It is difficult to consider an animal endangered when it regularly appears on your TV screen as the comic relief, the adorable pet, or the trunk monkey. But chimpanzees are indeed protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), at least wild chimps are. Responding to a petition sponsored by the Jane Goodall Institute, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) wants to extend ESA afforded protections to captive chimps too, USA Today reports.

Animal rights groups laud the FWS proposal, which is available for public comment for 60 days, while many in the medical research and entertainment fields are fighting it. Listing captive chimpanzees would not prevent the use of chimps in research or performance; it would require a permitting process.

Kathleen Conlee of the Humane Society of the United States supports this “case-by-case basis” approach, preferring it to the “wide-open exploitation we have now.” Conlee reports that “some of these animals are kept in research for 60 years, in solitary confinement in 5-by-5 cages.”

The decision to list wild and captive chimpanzees separately was made in 1990, when chimps were used extensively in HIV-AIDS research. Although we share 98% of our genes with them, these tests were moot as chimpanzee and human immune systems responded differently to the virus.

Head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Francis Collins feels that such closely matched genetic coding merits “special consideration and respect.” NIH discontinued its chimp research programs in 2011, heeding the recommendations of a research panel. Harvard followed suit in April.

Approximately 2,000 captive chimps in labs, zoos, sanctuaries, and private homes across the US will be affected by the discussion. Arguably, so will the 100,000 odd still in the wild. “Chimps are an iconic species and among our closest relatives on this planet. We hope this will ignite renewed public interest in the plight of chimps in the wild,” stated Dan Ashe, director of the USFWS.

Seemingly a robust population, wild chimpanzee numbers are falling, and fast. Logging, habitat loss, human diseases, and poaching have decreased chimp numbers in Gabon and the Congo by 4.7% a year.

Surveys from 2005 and 2006 suggest that when people see chimpanzees on TV they consider chimps to be less endangered than other primates, like gorillas. Jane Goodall, namesake of the JG Institute, spoke with Ashe saying, “we still get letters from people who want to buy a pet chimpanzee. ”

Critics include the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio. “Human and chimpanzee lives will be lost as a result of the reclassification. It is as simple and tragic as that”, stated spokesman Joe Carey. The entertainment industry may not be hit as hard. Gloria Winship of All Animal Actors International states that she only gets two or three chimp requests a year.

Link to story on Science Recorder.

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