Friday, June 12, 2015

Announcement marks the beginning of the end for sales of pet chimps

Today is a day that will go down in U.S. history. It is the beginning of the end of selling chimpanzees as pets or for use in entertainment. In a brilliant (and long-awaited) decision, the Fish and Wildlife Service finally announced that they were ending their split designation on the status of chimps. While they have long classified wild chimpanzees as endangered, they had not extended that protection to captive chimpanzees in the U.S. That split designation -- which effectively ends in September -- allowed chimpanzee breeders to sell baby chimps to naive people who thought they could handle a chimpanzee in their home for 40 or 50 years. These breeders could sell to anyone, compliments of Uncle Sam.

People (like my Aunt Elsie, pictured here) have
owned chimps as pets since the 1950s. With today's
fantastic announcement, the door is quickly
closing on private chimp ownership.
No more! Well, almost. Under this new rule, FWS will require a permit to buy or sell a chimpanzee across state lines -- but FWS will only issue permits “for scientific research related to the species or to enhance the propagation or survival of the species.” Unfortunately, the exploiters don’t need a federal permit if they buy or sell within the state, although state and local laws and regulations may apply.

This new restriction will put the nail in the coffin of chimp trade emanating out of Missouri, where a breeder sells baby chimps and uses the money to support the care of over a dozen adult chimpanzees she holds for more breeding (or because the would-be owners returned their chimp). This breeder is the last one of a nasty industry here in the U.S. Let’s hope she uses her head in deciding what she’s going to do now that her business is limited to sales in Missouri.

The biomedical research industry faces similar restrictions, even as far as transporting chimpanzee blood across state lines. The required permit may only be issued if it helps chimpanzee survival. Researchers in invasive biomedical programs have been reeling from the withdrawal of support previously provided by the National Institutes of Health, and this decision heaps another major requirement on their increasingly onerous regulatory burden.

But we need to celebrate this day for another reason, as well. It is not only the beginning of the end of treating chimps as commodities, it is the beginning of a new beginning of a united effort to give these magnificent captive animals the respect and care they deserve. Look at the chimpanzee defenders who support this decision: the U.S. government, animal welfare organizations, and zoos. The petition that started this process had a strong coalition: The Humane Society of the United States, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Jane Goodall Institute, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance, the Fund for Animals, Humane Society International, and the New England Anti-Vivisection Society. They are all on the same page, striving for the same goals, working together!

Dr. Steve Ross provides pivotal guidance in U.S. captive
chimp welfare.
I know that a lot of the credit is going to go to Dr. Jane Goodall, who wrote a strong letter arguing for “uplisting” captive chimps to endangered species status, but my hero in this is Dr. Steve Ross, the dynamic director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes, at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. Ross was the zoo association’s guiding hand for the FWS petition, and is the behind-the-scenes person who quietly provides guidance, advice, and expertise in just about any area that will make life better for chimps (as a species and as individuals). He is always objective, rarely judgmental, and is trusted by nearly everyone who has ever worked with chimps. He was a major mover in developing the coalition that petitioned FWS for the change, and his reasoned and caring influence will be a major asset as chimp care in the U.S. continues to expand into a new beginning.

I reported in 2011, “FWS is the best hope for giving chimpanzees the respect and protection they deserve. FWS can help the country overcome its legacy of zoo chimp shows and other mistakes.” Today, with zoos, sanctuaries, and the ape advocacy community working together with the federal government, the future for U.S. captive chimpanzees has never been brighter