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US regulator plans to declare research chimps endangered

chimpanzee

Flickr: Valentina Storti

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is planning to categorize all US chimpanzees as an endangered species, a change which, if enacted, may spell the end of invasive chimpanzee research.

This soon-to-be-published proposed FWS rule, which will be open for 60 days of public comment before being finalized, would bring captive chimps — whether in zoos, private homes or research labs — under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, as wild chimps already are.

If the FWS decides to list the captive animals as endangered, then using them for invasive research would require a special permit. To win one, researchers would have to show that any proposed study would promote the conservation of the species.

Jane Goodall, the famous primatologist, called the move “an important step toward saving our closest living relatives from extinction”. She spoke on behalf of a coalition of animal welfare groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, that had petitioned the agency to declare captive chimpanzees endangered.

The coalition noted that populations of wild chimpanzees have fallen more than 65% in the last 30 years, and attributed some of the loss to poaching driven in part by US research. The United States is the only major country that conducts invasive chimpanzee research.

The proposed rule comes as scientists are also awaiting a decision by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on the future disposition of roughly 360 chimpanzees owned by the agency and now housed at facilities in Texas and New Mexico. In January, an NIH working group advised the agency to retire to sanctuary all but 50 of the animals.  The working group was responding to a report from the US Institute of Medicine late in 2011, which declared most research using chimpanzees scientifically unnecessary.

The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), which represents many research scientists, said in a statement today that it is “disappointed” in the FWS decision. The endangered designation, it said, “would make biomedical research using chimpanzees difficult and potentially delayed”.

The FASEB added:  “Chimpanzees are an important model for both ongoing and future research in certain circumstances. [We] believe the status change will negatively affect the health of both humans and great apes.”

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