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Chimpanzees: Before, During, and After Experimental Use

Negra, enjoying sunlight on her face!

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been fortunate enough to hear a few speakers on the subject of chimpanzees: Sheri Speede of In Defense of Animals, who has worked closely with chimpanzees in Africa; Professor Richard Wrangham, who works with them in cognitive research at Harvard University; and Sarah Baeckler of Chimp Sanctuary Northwest. The stories they shared, in addition to the pictures and videos, warmed my heart as much as they amazed me.

So what laws do we have that are protecting chimpanzees? How does the United States measure up to what other countries are doing? Here’s a summary of what’s already in place — in the United States and around the globe — and my hopes for the future:

Before Experimental Use
In the 1950s and ’60s, chimpanzees were captured in the wild for experiments as part of the United States air and space program; tests included subjecting them to compression and confinement in coffin-like capsules for longer and longer stretches of time. Wild chimpanzees were classified as “endangered” in 1976, under the Endangered Species Act; in contrast, already captured or bred chimpanzees were designated a “threatened” species, a lower level of protection. The chimpanzee is the only animal used in experimentation to have such split classification. Furthermore, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service, delegated authority by the Secretary of the Interior, added a special rule that allows for the continuation of research on captive/bred chimps. A ban on breeding chimpanzees has been in effect since 1996. Nevertheless, with a life span in captivity reaching up to sixty years, there are many chimpanzees still living in confinement and subject to invasive experimental use.

During Experimentation

  • Federal Law
    The Animal Welfare Act, originally passed in 1966, is the major federal law that addresses the treatment of animals used in research. Also, the Secretary of Agriculture codified regulations specific to the treatment of primates used in research. Despite the attempts to create a minimum threshold of care, the laws and guidelines give the scientific community a great deal of latitude to step outside the parameters when they deem it a “necessity.” What consitutes a necessity is not clearly defined and therefore left to the researchers’ discretion. In addition to the AWA,  a second oversight program exists under the National Institutes of Health (NIH), through its PHS Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, and applies to any research that is funded by the NIH. Unfortunately, compliance and enforcement of these regulations remains a major concern, due in large part to underfunding and understaffing.
  • State Law
    Beyond federal laws, state cruelty statutes can play a role in protection. Typically, state laws do not extend to animals used for “bona fide” research, or the statute will exempt any procedures that called into question so long as a researcher can claim the procedures as “customary.” However, states are beginning to reconsider and make changes. After a high-profile case involving the abuse and neglect of macque monkeys at a research facility (State v. Taub), Maryland amended its statute specifically to include primates. New Jersey also is a trailblazer in this area, now requiring the use of alternatives to testing on animals when alternatives are available.

After Experimentation
A chimpanzee-breeding boom in the United States took place during the 1980s when the scientific community wanted chimpanzees for HIV/AIDS research. By 1996, however, they realized their mistake: the National Research Council announced that the chimpanzee research had been fruitless because chimpanzees infected with the HIV virus never manifest AIDS. In response to the resulting “surplus” of chimapnzees, the government passed the CHIMP Act and created a national sanctuary system. Under the Act, chimpanzees would be retired to sanctuary environments that could satisfy both their physical and psychological needs; and the Act was amended in 2007 to ensure that retired chimps would not be sent back into research. The major problem remaining: chimpanzees not yet placed in sanctuaries still are vulnerable to being used for experiments.

International Initiatives & Legal Rights
The United States is among the countries participating in CITES, an international treaty that aims to protect endangered and threatened species from international trade. We also have enacted the Great Ape Conservation Act, which includes chimpanzees as part of the Great Ape family; through the Act, we support programs in other countries within the range of great apes.

Our efforts are laudable, but many other countries have banned altogether the experimental use of primates, including chimpanzees: New Zealand, (2000), the Netherlands (2002), Sweden (2003), Austria (2006), and Belgium (2008); in Japan, as of 2006, there has been an agreement ending invasive research on chimpanzees and, in Australia, a policy limiting great ape research has been in effect since 2003. The UK stopped issuing licenses for chimpanzees in 1999. And among the top stories of 2007, Spain bestowed rights to primates: “the right to life and protection from harmful research practices and exploitation for profit, such as use in films, commercials, and circuses.”

Although the import of wild-caught chimpanzees has been in place in the United States since 1976, and a ban on breeding in effect since 1997, we remain home to the largest captured colony of chimpanzees in the world.

My recommendations would effectively create policy against the use of chimpanzees in future research and provide chimpanzees that are already confined the security of living the remainder of their lives under conditions that will meet their needs in all respects:

  • Continuing the Ban on Breeding and Its Enforcement
  • Establishing Permanent Retirement for All Existing Chimpanzees and Increasing Funding for Sanctuaries
  • Changing the Animal Welfare Act to Include, Like the Endangered Species Act, the Possibility of Citizen Standing
  • State Laws That Include Protection of Primates and Eliminate the Exemption for Research
  • The End of Invasive Research on Chimpanzees, as Proposed by the Great Ape Protection Act of 2010
  • Following the Trend in International Laws Moving Towards Legal Rights for Primates

Bestowing a chimpanzee with rights will not necessarily put her on the same level as an individual human citizen; rather, it will be a considerable move on our part as a civilized society to formally recognize, as other countries already are doing, that primates should be afforded an elevated status, including legal rights and the greater protections from harm that come along with them.

Special thanks to Sarah Baeckler of the Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest for being the first to inspire me with her stories and pictures (including the picture in this post!) of the chimpanzees and their amazing transformations once at the sanctuary; and to Professor Roy Spece, advisor to my 40-page paper on this topic.

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Author: Sharon Discorfano

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  1. Excellent overview of the problems facing chimpanzees. To address your last suggestion, about moving towards legal rights for chimpanzees, that’s what the Nonhuman Rights Project is all about. We’ve been working hard, many of us for decades, on the complex legal puzzle of chipping away at the wall that has separated humans and animals for so long. The NhRP was founded by Steven Wise, one of the most prominent writers, teachers, and practitioners of animal rights law in the world. I invite you and your readers to follow our work and support the movement towards legal rights for chimpanzees.

    Find us at http://www.nonhumanrightsproject.org

    And on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/nonhumanrights

    Thank you for all you do for chimpanzees, and together we’re making progress towards finally getting them genuine protection under the law.

    • Thank you for your comment, Kevin! I am a huge fan of Steven Wise and his work — I’ve heard him speak at the annual Animal Law Conference in Portland. The Nonhuman Rights Project is AWESOME! Thank you for providing the link here for the other readers.


  1. Bills in Play on Capitol Hill | Animals & the Law from | Sharon Discorfano - [...] Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act I’ve written extensively on the experimental use of chimpanzees. Even the scientific community…

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