Posted on behalf of Meredith Wadman.
In a small but significant first step published in the Federal Register today the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is opening the door to listing captive chimpanzees in the US as ‘endangered.’
The agency’s move comes in response to a March, 2010 petition by several groups led by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and including the Jane Goodall Institute. In their 130-page argument, they maintain that a 1990 decision under the Endangered Species Act that listed captive chimps as ‘threatened’ but wild ones as ‘endangered’ is specious and should be done away with.
“There should be a consistent protection for all chimps regardless of whether they are in the wild or in captivity,” says Kathleen Conlee, the Senior Director, Animal Research Issues at HSUS.
The FWS, which desginates endangered species and enforces their protection, has indicated by its publication today that it is willing to start down the regulatory path to declaring captive chimps endangered.
It writes, in part, that the groups’ petition “presents substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that listing all chimpanzees as endangered may be warranted.” The agency opened a public comment period which closes on October 31.
The groups’ petition focused largely on captive chimps in zoos* and on movie sets. But it also targets medical research. An endangered designation for captive chimps would make it much more difficult, if not impossible, for US scientists to continue to conduct research on the roughly 950 chimps now available for biological and behavioural studies.
While scientists could petition the agency for permission to use a captive chimpanzee in a research experiment, under the law, they would have to prove that the ends of the experiment serve chimpanzee conservation. For instance, a trial testing the safety of an ebola vaccine aimed at protecting chimpanzees in the wild could be construed as promoting chimp conservation, while a trial establishing the safety of a hepatitis C drug for humans would not.
In general for scientists, “petitioning Fish and Wildlife for use would be time consuming and prohibitive,” says Thomas Rowell, the director of the New Iberia Research Center near Lafayette, Louisiana, the country’s biggest facility housing research chimpanzees. Rowell predicts the demise of all invasive research if captive chimps are listed as endangered, arguing that the handful of centers like his would be forced to send their chimpanzees to sanctuaries, where breeding bans would ultimately guarantee the extinction of captive chimps.
Nature looked at Rowell’s operation as a microcosm of US chimp research and the challenge it is facing in this recent story.
Next steps by the FWS after the comment period closes are likely to take months. If in fact the agency concludes that captive chimps should be designated endangered, that will moot the current work of an Institute of Medicine committee. At the request of the National Institutes of Health, that committee is assessing the justifications for the biomedical agency to continue funding chimpanzee research.
*The HSUS’s Conlee contacted us after this blog was posted to note that the petition does not target zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), whose member zoos house some 264 chimpanzees. The AZA is in fact one of the petitioners. The zoos it accredits must maintain “specific standards for animal care, education, wildlife conservation, and science,” the petition notes, as opposed to “sub-standard (`roadside’) zoos that are not accredited by the AZA.”
Photo Credit: Aaron Logan