By Julia Gallucci
Those concerned about the present and future conditions of chimpanzees—humankind’s closest genetic relative—have been given reason to feel optimistic: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) recently proposed a rule that would, if adopted, finally close a loophole in the Endangered Species Act (ESA) regulations that has allowed these intelligent and social primates to be bought, sold and traded, then harmed, harassed and wounded in captivity.
An immediate benefit of the rule change, if the ESA is properly enforced, would be that chimpanzees could no longer be torn away from their mothers as babies, physically abused and forced to “perform” in television shows, ads and movies.
On the same day that the FWS announced its proposal (and following a vigorous PETA campaign), authorities in Nye County, Nev., voted unanimously to deny notorious exhibitor Mike Casey a permit to keep four chimpanzees in their county when he is not renting them out for use in TV, films, ads and events. Casey has reportedly kicked and punched chimpanzees, struck them with wooden rods and doused them with hot water.
Undercover investigations have documented that the physical abuse of chimpanzee “actors” is a common practice behind the scenes. Systematic abuse causes animals to become perpetually anxious; indeed, the chimpanzee “grin” so often seen in movies and on television is actually a grimace of fear.
With equitable and meaningful ESA enforcement, chimpanzees would also be spared the pain and misery of being imprisoned in laboratories to endure invasive experiments that offer no benefit to their species—or to our own. As the Institute of Medicine (IOM) declared in 2011, “[M]ost current biomedical research use of chimpanzees is not necessary.”
Following the landmark IOM report, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) formed a committee to reassess its support for the use of chimpanzees in experiments. In addition to echoing the findings of the IOM regarding current experiments, it concluded overall that “research involving chimpanzees has rarely accelerated new discoveries or the advancement of human health for infectious diseases.” Last month, the NIH announced that it will cut funding for most invasive biomedical experiments on chimpanzees and grant sanctuary to at least 310 of the 360 federally owned chimpanzees currently imprisoned in laboratories.
In recent experiments funded and conducted by the NIH, chimpanzees were intentionally infected with malaria and fed upon by thousands of mosquitoes placed on their shaved skin. Baby chimpanzees were exposed to norovirus by injection or by forcing liquid filtered from human stool down their throats and then subjected to months of painful biopsies and other invasive procedures. Norovirus and malaria are two of the many disease areas in which the IOM and NIH have determined that the use of chimpanzees is unnecessary, but the experiments continued simply because they had easy access to them. That’s now going to change.
If the FWS rule is implemented and properly enforced, it would also offer vital leverage to efforts already underway to defend other endangered animals against harm and exploitation. It could herald an end to similarly unjustified exemptions from legal protections for other endangered animals held in captivity, including the improper exclusion of Lolita, the sole captive orca at the Miami Seaquarium, from the ESA listing of Southern Resident orcas. The FWS proposal reinforces the petition submitted by PETA, the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the Orca Network to the National Marine Fisheries Service calling for Lolita to receive the same protections as the Southern Resident orca family that she was torn from more than 40 years ago. The unjust exclusion from the safeguards against harm and harassment afforded by the ESA has allowed the Miami Seaquarium to hold Lolita in the smallest orca tank in North America.
The ESA must protect all endangered animals equally—whether they are in captivity or their natural environments—and thankfully, the FWS is finally recognizing this.