The federal government will examine whether captive chimpanzees should be reclassified as “endangered,” officials said Wednesday, a move that could eventually prevent the animals from being used in medical experiments or for entertainment.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — responding to a petition filed by groups including the Humane Society of the United States and the Jane Goodall Institute — announced it had found enough information to justify a review of whether captive chimpanzees need a more protective listing under the Endangered Species Act.
Wild chimps are listed as endangered. Captive ones — about 2,000 in the United States — are listed as threatened; this allows them to be used for purposes that otherwise would be prohibited.
“We’re concerned about the exploitation of chimpanzees in the U.S.,” said Kathleen Conlee, senior director for animal research issues at the Humane Society. “We do applaud [Fish and Wildlife] for taking this initial step of reviewing chimpanzees’ status.”
Gary Frazer, Fish and Wildlife’s assistant director for endangered species, said he expects the review to take a year to complete.
“The petition provided substantial information that further review is warranted,” Frazer said.
Treatment of chimpanzees in the United States has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months. Last month, the Institute of Medicine held hearings about the ethics of experimenting on chimps, a practice in the United States and Gabon.
From 2007 until last year, the number of biomedical chimp studies conducted in the United States declined, from 53 to 32, because prominent pharmaceutical companies such as GlaxoSmithKline and Genentech stopped using the animals in experiments.
The petitioners also questioned whether using chimps in entertainment has convinced the public that they are not facing a serious threat. The global wild chimpanzee population has declined 60 percent in the past two decades and now stands between 175,000 and 300,000. In the early 1900s, there were a million chimpanzees in the wild.
Alexandra Thornton, executive vice president of strategic operations and public policy at the Jane Goodall Institute, said it’s hard for her group, which educates the public about conservation in general and chimpanzees in particular, “to do that when the public is constantly barraged with images of chimps in entertainment and can get them as pets.”
Reclassifying captive chimpanzees might not eliminate the domestic pet trade altogether but would bar chimp breeders from transporting the animals across state lines for sale.