The federal government moved Tuesday to declare all chimpanzees endangered, an act that would provide stronger protections and potentially end nearly a century of using great apes as test subjects for invasive medical research.
In announcing the proposal, Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said that a 1990 decision by the agency to classify wild chimps as endangered and captive chimps as threatened, a designation that carries fewer protections, was flawed. The “split listing” under the Endangered Species Act, the only one in the history of the agency, was designed to allow the National Institutes of Health to fund medical experiments using captive chimps, he said in an interview.
“The rule proposed today would correct this inconsistency,” the agency said, adding that the rule will be open for public comment for 60 days and finalized in December.
Ashe said the new rule sends a clear message that, contrary to popular belief, the survival of all chimps is threatened.
More than a million have disappeared from the wild since the beginning of the 20th century, according to estimates by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Fewer than 300,000 remain, as people invade chimpanzee habitats, using the land to farm and hunting the animals for meat, according to IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species.
“The most important thing about this is it brings attention to the plight of chimpanzees in the wild,” Ashe said. Because chimps are often dressed in clothing and used as comic relief in movies, Americans do not believe they are endangered, he said.
Ashe said it is unclear how tougher protections for captive chimpanzees would affect NIH research projects or the use of the animals in the entertainment industry or circuses. Those aspects, he said, would be worked out during development of the final rule. But it is all but certain that any future medical research involving chimps would require Fish and Wildlife’s approval and a permit, officials said.
Members of the conservation organizations that requested an endangered listing for captive chimps two years ago — including the Humane Society of the United States, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Jane Goodall Institute — said the change would have a profound effect on restricting the use of chimps in medical research.
They noted that the Fish and Wildlife proposal dovetailed with recent findings by two federal research bodies, the Institute of Medicine and an NIH advisory panel, that it was not necessary to use chimps for research on human diseases.
Classifying all chimps as endangered also would affect the exotic-animal business, which peddles chimps as pets.
Buyers and sellers would be barred from taking chimps across state lines. International commerce would be banned.
“There are breeders who breed them for pets and the entertainment industry . . . dressing them up, and clothes makes people think of them as not endangered,” said Kathleen Conlee, vice president for animal research issues at the Humane Society.
In recent years, the NIH, which established the United States as a powerhouse for chimp research by investing hundreds of millions of dollars in medical testing, has scaled back its use of the animals.
At the start of this year, the NIH’s Council of Councils, an advisory group, proposed to severely restrict medical and behavioral research on chimps and to send most research chimps into retirement.
The United States is the only nation in the developed world that continues to use apes for research. European nations banned the practice years ago, but along with the United States, continue to use large numbers of rhesus macaques and spider monkeys as test subjects.
Conservationists praised the proposal to protect captive apes, saying it would accelerate the NIH’s slow phaseout of testing. The agency’s director, Francis Collins, has not decided whether to accept the council’s recommendations nearly four months after the required 60 days to mull it over.
The NIH has maintained that medical research involving chimps has benefited humans. It cites the development of vaccines for hepatitis A and B, which are now in use; the finding that elevated levels of salt in diets leads to high blood pressure; and the development of antibodies used to treat certain cancers.
James Anderson, deputy director for program planning at NIH, said the agency is also concerned about the disappearance of chimps in the wild and will work with the Fish and Wildlife Service to establish a process for permits.
Hundreds of other chimpanzees are also in private hands, available for lease to laboratories for experiments. But those facilities could suffer economically if the NIH continues to cut funding for medical research involving apes.
If the Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal is finalized, organizations wanting to use chimps in medical research would have to obtain permits and provide explanations on how the work would benefit apes — such as through testing for diseases specific to chimps or through financial donations for chimp conservation efforts.
“Things are moving down a funnel, and what’s going to come out at the other end, we think, is the practical end of chimpanzee use in invasive research,” said John Pippin, director of medical affairs for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
Jane Goodall, founder of her namesake institute, said the Fish and Wildlife Service’s call to protect great apes is “a major step in the right direction. It’s something we’ve been fighting for a very long time.”
But in a telephone interview from Bournemouth, England, she said: “Far more rhesus monkeys are used than chimps . . . also squirrel monkeys . . . in other countries. Monkeys are one of the most common animals used for medical research.”