In the more than two decades since the U.S. government declared chimpanzees in the wild to be an endangered species, not much has improved for those great apes. The threats of habitat loss, poaching and disease have only intensified.
Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed reclassifying captive chimpanzees as well, moving them from the “threatened” category to “endangered,” a change that brings with it stricter guidelines covering the handling and use of the animals. In the future, any procedure that harms, harasses or kills a research chimp would require a permit.
There are an estimated 2,000 captive chimpanzees in the United States. More than 800 of them are in research labs, and many are owned by the federal government. The rest are in sanctuaries, accredited zoos and unaccredited facilities, or in the hands of private trainers, pet owners, sellers and breeders.
Under the proposed guidelines, chimps could no longer be sold across state lines. That might limit the pet trade, and that would be good. The trade encourages taking chimps from the wild. And people should not keep these wild, strong creatures as pets anyway.
The changes would most significantly affect the use of chimpanzees for medical research. The prudent new guidelines would not outlaw all chimp research. But they would set a high standard for approval of invasive procedures. To get permits, scientists would have to offer some mitigation that contributes to chimpanzee conservation.
Details aren’t yet worked out, but if the research itself is not designed to help the chimpanzee population, the facility might do extra research that does benefit chimps or make financial contributions to conservation. The proposed guidelines should be applauded and adopted.