by James Gorman / New York Times
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service proposed Tuesday to bring captive chimpanzees under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, a move that would create one more major barrier to conducting invasive medical research on the animals for human diseases.
If the proposal is enacted, permits will be required for any experiment that harms chimps, and both public and privately financed researchers will have to show that the experiment contributes to the survival of chimps that remain in the wild. The recommendation is now open to public comment for 60 days.
The demand for chimps in medical research has dwindled, and the National Institutes of Health is expected to respond to recommendations from its own committee to retire most of the about 450 chimps it owns or supports. The committee recommended keeping a colony of chimps for possible future research on human disease if needed, but that need is not one of the criteria that the Fish and Wildlife Service would consider.
Daniel M. Ashe, the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the proposal would end the so-called split list, with wild chimps declared endangered since 1990 and captive chimps unprotected under the law.
The move was a long time in the works, a response to a petition filed in 2010 by the Humane Society of the United States, the Jane Goodall Institute and other groups with concerns about biomedical research on chimpanzees and the use of the animals in advertisements and entertainment.
Dr. Goodall, who joined Mr. Ashe in announcing the proposed ruling in a conference call, said the move was an important step forward in the effort “to conserve these extraordinary beings in their home.”
Kathleen Conlee, the vice president of animal research issues of the Humane Society of the United States, said, “This an amazing step forward towards protecting chimpanzees in laboratories.”
If enacted, the new listing would affect not only medical research but also the import or export of chimps and the sale of chimps in interstate commerce. It would not affect people who own chimps as pets. Whether the use of chimps in entertainment could be regulated is an issue that will be discussed during the comment period, Mr. Ashe said.
Over the past few years, the movement to stop invasive research on chimpanzees has gained force. The National Institutes of Health decided in December 2011 to suspend all new grants for medical and behavioral experiments on chimpanzees. And in January, a committee recommended the retirement of the about 450 N.I.H. chimps.
A 60-day comment period on those recommendations ended in March, and animal welfare groups have been awaiting a final decision. One problem in enacting the recommendations is the cost of supporting chimpanzees in retirement sanctuaries.
Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society, who praised the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision, said his organization and others would use the comment period to pursue the issue of using chimps in entertainment.
While the argument for medical research has been that there is a compelling human need, he said there was no such argument for using young chimps in television advertisements, for example, which he described as “entirely frivolous.”
But under the Endangered Species Act, only uses that are considered harmful or harassing require permits. And use in entertainment has not traditionally been considered to be in the same class as taking blood or other invasive procedures.
In separate interviews, Mr. Pacelle and Dr. Goodall said chimps who are trained for entertainment are taken away from their social group when they are young, which is very harmful to them.
And, Mr. Pacelle said, once the animals reach the age of about 7, they become too strong or unruly, and the owners “typically dump them into the animal welfare movement for us to care for for the next 50 years,” at a cost of about $1 million over the lifetime of each animal kept in a sanctuary.
But, Dr. Goodall said, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s action was a major step forward.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” she said. “You take one step at a time.”