Primate Rescue Center

Plan to Export Chimps Tests Law to Protect Species

Erika Fleury November 14, 2015

When the Fish and Wildlife Service decided in June to classify all chimpanzees, captive or wild, as endangered, the ruling meant that any biomedical experiment or export of chimps from the United States, whoever owned them, would be subject to a strict permit process under the Endangered Species Act.

Only actions that benefited chimpanzees as a species would be allowed.

In combination with a 2013 decision by the National Institutes of Health to retire most of the several hundred chimpanzees it owned, the change came close to a ban on any medical research on the animals. It was the culmination of decades of efforts by animal welfare advocates, a growing awareness of how genetically close chimps are to humans, and the declining value of their use in research. Other animals are cheaper to maintain and easier to use, and even the director of the N.I.H. had declared that chimps deserved special consideration.

But for many chimps still in research institutions, a future as happy retirees in sanctuaries has yet to materialize. And how the new rules will play out is an open question. A partial answer is about to come in the first test of the new endangered listing, a permit application now before the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The application is not to conduct experiments, but to transfer eight chimpanzees from the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta to the Wingham Wildlife Park in southeast England.

Noelle is a chimpanzee at the PRC who came from laboratory research.

The federal agency will consider the quality of the facility and its staff and whether the move will benefit the species. Animal welfare groups are objecting to the move on several grounds.

There are American sanctuaries willing to take the animals. The English zoo is not accredited by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, nor has it ever housed chimpanzees before. And the zoo has not ruled out breeding the chimps.

The European Endangered Species Program, which manages breeding of endangered species, opposes the move because, it says, there is already a surplus of chimpanzees in Europe and the chimps in question are not in the subspecies for which it supports breeding.

“I think it would be a terrible precedent for the Fish and Wildlife Service to allow it to happen,” said Katherine A. Meyer, a lawyer who represents the New England Antivivisection Society, one of the vocal opponents of the move. “The ink is hardly dry on the final rule” that classified chimps as endangered, she added.

R. Paul Johnson, the director of Yerkes, said the center had carefully studied Wingham Wildlife Park before making its decision. “We believe the Wingham Wildlife Park is the best setting for this particular group of chimpanzees from Yerkes,” he said. The zoo is building a 12,700-square-foot facility, more than half of it outdoors, for the eight animals, and Yerkes has been involved in the design.

Markus Wilder, a curator at Wingham, said the zoo, although not accredited by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, was licensed by the government. He wrote in an email, “In the U.K. it is not as much a part of the culture to become a member of a zoo association and there are numerous zoos which are not.”

Yerkes recently donated seven chimps to the Chattanooga Zoo in Tennessee. It still has 56, but Dr. Johnson has said it is looking for other homes for many of them because of “changing research priorities.”

Chimpanzees can live for up to 60 years, and the lifetime cost of caring for a chimp can be about $1 million, according to some estimates. That cost is borne by the government, private organizations or sanctuaries that are ready to take the animals as they retire.

Five American sanctuaries are willing to take the Yerkes chimps, according to Erika Fleury, the program manager of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance. Some may require financial support for chimps that they take from the institute that retires them; Ms. Fleury said each sanctuary sets its own conditions.

Dr. Johnson, the director of Yerkes, said that “cost is a consideration” in donating chimps but not the main reason for picking Wingham. He pointed to its record in handling other animals and the facility it was designing. “We have discussed options with some of the sanctuaries,” Dr. Johnson said. Yerkes would consider them in the future, he said, but the process with Wingham was well underway, with visits back and forth and consultation about chimp care.

Wingham proposed to give $10,000 to a sanctuary, the Kibale Chimpanzee Project in Uganda, to promote the welfare of the species — one of the criteria that the Fish and Wildlife Service will consider, along with the facility and the expertise of the staff. But the Kibale project rejected the offer when it realized it was intended to gain a permit by showing benefit to the conservation of chimps.

Richard Wrangham, an anthropologist at Harvard, who is a founder and a director of the project, said in his comment filed with the Fish and Wildlife agency, “Importantly, through this proposed export, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center is attempting to avoid financial responsibility for lifetime care of the chimpanzees it bred for use in biomedical research.”

The public comment period ends on Monday, and a ruling is due within 60 days.

 - New York Times

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