Supporting the Campaign to Classify Captive Chimpanzees as Endangered

Posted by Neil Abramson, Daniel Saperstein, and Kelly Anne Targett, Proskauer Rose LLP on November 28, 2011

Current regulations under the Endangered Species Act have created an illogical and self-defeating double standard that grants “wild” chimpanzees vital protections under the Act, while denying “captive” chimpanzees in the United States any protection at all. The decision to “split list” the chimpanzee population, as this wild-versus-captive division came to be known, dates back to a regulation issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service, or FWS, in 1976. Inexplicably, that regulation designated all chimpanzees as “threatened” species but, without justification, exempted captive chimpanzees from receiving any of the protections afforded to their wild counterparts.

It soon became evident that FWS’s split listing failed to protect either the wild or the captive chimpanzee population. And, by 1990, the species was in such great peril that FWS was compelled to review its 1976 classification. Although the 1990 status review resulted in the upgrade of wild chimpanzees to endangered status, captive members of the species continued to languish without protection. Remarkably, FWS’s commercial explanation for prolonging the split listing flatly contradicted the conservation mandate embodied in the Endangered Species Act.

Then, last year, reacting to the worsening plight of the species, the Humane Society of the United States, in concert with several other animal rights’ organizations, petitioned FWS to reconsider the status of captive chimpanzees in the United States. That petition–supported by affidavits from primate experts and activists such as Drs. Jane Goodall and Richard Wrangham–detailed the often tortured and painful existence of captive chimpanzees in this country, including their exploitation for entertainment and research, and their suffering as household pets. The petition also powerfully linked the lighthearted manner in which chimpanzees have been portrayed here in the United States with the catastrophic degradation of their natural habitat and wild populations in Africa. FWS was persuaded by the petition, and launched another status review–this time, to re-examine the split listing. In September of this year, FWS invited public comments to inform its review of the split listing and its overall decision-making process.

ALDF contacted the law firm of Proskauer Rose in search of volunteer legal assistance to prepare a comment exposing the plight of captive chimpanzees. We embraced the opportunity and immediately focused our attention on the legality of the chimpanzee split listing. After an exhaustive exegesis of the legislative history and text of the Endangered Species Act, we concluded that the split listing of chimpanzees violated both the letter and spirit of the law, such that FWS had lacked the authority to impose such a split in the first place. In addition, with the aid of the Humane Society petition, we established that the justifications for the split-listing that were advanced in 1990 have proven utterly false over time. Given these two incontrovertible conclusions, we urged FWS to grant captive chimpanzees the same endangered status as wild chimpanzees, with all of the protections that accompany the designation.

We submitted our comments on October 31, 2011, and are hopeful that the great weight of legal and scientific data will persuade FWS of the futility of the split listing and the need to unify the chimpanzee population under one legal standard.

It is not too late for you to voice your own views and concerns on this important issue! We learned recently that, due to an error in the initial publication calling for public comments, FWS has re-opened the comment period and will accept submissions until January 30, 2012. Please take a moment to read the call for comments to see if you are able to add something to the conversation.

Once again, it has been Proskauer’s privilege to represent ALDF in its advocacy efforts on behalf of animals.

2 thoughts on “Supporting the Campaign to Classify Captive Chimpanzees as Endangered

  1. Lisa says:

    This is sort of insane. How can they do the kinds of things done to chimpanzees in captivity (research, product testing, training for entertainment, etc.) to an endangered species?! Thanks for your work on this, ALDF. I eagerly hope for good news on this.

  2. Colleen says:

    If there is anyone in the New York area, I’d be happy to hold a lecture on this subject and chimpanzees in the pet trade and entertainment industry as well. I worked for several years at the Center for Great Apes sanctuary in Florida and now work for Orangutan Outreach in NYC. Please let me know if anyone is interested. Would love to come and share.

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