Changing Perspectives Propel Chimp Protections

James Gorman, The New York Times
The New York Times
June 15, 2013

Wild chimpanzees have been listed as endangered since 1990,but a new proposal, announced Tuesday, covers all chimps. Image Courtesy Lincoln Park Zoo / The New York Times (c) 2013

More than 50 years ago, Jane Goodall, then a young researcher at what would become the Gombe National Park in Tanzania, began introducing the public to the “fantastic beings” she had studied and lived with. In her book “In the Shadow of Man” and in later works, she showed the world complex animals with intricate social lives and helped change the way the world looked at the great apes.

On Tuesday, Dr. Goodall, 79, now a longtime champion of chimpanzee conservation, participated in what may turn out to be another milestone. She joined the director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Daniel M. Ashe, in announcing a proposal to add chimpanzees in captivity to the endangered species list.

Wild chimpanzees have been listed as endangered since 1990, but the new proposal, which is open to public comment for 60 days, covers all chimps, including nearly 2,000 captive in the United States. The listing, if adopted, could block most experimentation on them, stop interstate trade in the animals and perhaps discourage use of chimpanzees in entertainment.

The Fish and Wildlife Service proposal came in response to a petition filed in 2010 by the Jane Goodall Institute, the Humane Society of the United States, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and other groups. It would require permits for interstate commerce involving any chimpanzees, or for what the law calls “taking,” which could be anything from harassment to major harm to something as simple as obtaining a blood sample. And those permits, Mr. Ashe said, would be granted only if the action could be shown to benefit the survival of the species.

If the new rule is enacted, it will be a major success for animal welfare groups, a grave disappointment for some scientists and another sign of the profound changes over the last half-century in the way animals are used and imagined in science and popular culture.

“What the chimpanzee has done is to prove there is no hard and fast line dividing us from the rest of the animal kingdom,” Dr. Goodall said Friday. “That’s the greatest gift the chimpanzee has given those of us who care about animal welfare.”

In a blog post about the proposal, Mr. Ashe reflected this connection. “The chimpanzee is said to share 98 percent of our genes,” he wrote. “It is in our nature to protect and conserve this iconic species, and this proposal will help.”

Like any cultural shift, the change in how chimps are viewed has been spotty and uneven, but profound. In the 1950s and ’60s, chimps provided comic relief in movies like “Bedtime for Bonzo” with Ronald Reagan. Although chimps are still dressed in costume and used on television and in advertisements, a recent film like “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” used human actors and technology for its apes, who were decidedly the heroes of the movie.

Pressure from animal welfare groups and the advance of technology have changed the climate. Patti Ragan, who runs the Center for Great Apes, a sanctuary in Florida that houses many chimps once involved in entertainment, said that 20 years ago, there were 10 to 15 trainers who “worked great apes.” “There’s really only three trainers left now,” she said.

The genomics revolution revealed the genetic commonality that Mr. Ashe referred to, and science has a very different view of animals of all sorts than it did when Dr. Goodall went to Cambridge for her doctorate.

“I could not talk about chimpanzees having personalities,” she said. “That was the worst anthropomorphic sin.”

Now, she said, the “mind” of the chimpanzee is a legitimate subject of study, and chimpanzees used in research are routinely referred to by name in scientific papers.

In fact, most of the roughly 1,000 chimps held at biomedical laboratories are not being used. Animal welfare groups are hoping, with good reason, that the great majority of these animals will go to sanctuaries — places like Chimp Haven in Louisiana, where more than 120 chimps are kept in large social groups when possible, with time to roam in forested enclosures of four or five acres.

The National Institutes of Health is expected to act soon on a recommendation from one of its committees that most of the 450 or so chimps it owns or supports be retired to sanctuaries.

Robert R. Gabriel, chief of the division of management authority for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said listing captive chimps as endangered would not necessarily mean the end of research on human diseases using chimps. The service might still be able to issue a permit based on the benefit-to-chimpanzees clause.

“We will be talking to the biomedical community over the coming months,” he wrote, “to determine what actions they might be able to take to provide such enhancement for chimpanzees, which would then qualify them for the necessary take permits to cover their research activities with the captive animals.”

What the new rule would clearly do is require a permit for almost any kind of biomedical research. While this is viewed as great progress by Dr. Goodall and animal welfare groups, some scientists who conduct research on chimpanzees to find treatments or vaccines for human diseases are disappointed by the proposal.

Christian R. Abee, a veterinarian who is the director of the Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas, said the new rule would require an application for a permit “for even sending a blood sample that is banked blood that is sitting in a freezer” to another lab in a different state, which in the best circumstances “could take months and months to obtain.”

Dr. Abee said chimps were important in research on a hepatitis C vaccine. They can be infected with the virus, but it does not make them sick the way it does humans. A vaccine may well be achieved without chimps, he said, but time could be saved by using them.

“In the United States alone,” he said “15,000 people a year die from hepatitis C. If we save six months because we can test in chimps, that’s 7,500 human lives. Those of us who work in research think about those lives every day.”

Stephen Ross, the director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at the Lincoln Park Zoo, runs Project ChimpCARE, which keeps track of the number of chimps in the United States. Of the 1,884 chimps in the country, 864 are in biomedical facilities, 254 are in accredited zoos and 480 are in accredited sanctuaries.

Roadside zoos or unaccredited sanctuaries account for 206 chimps, while 59 are kept as pets or by breeders, and 21 are owned by trainers or used in entertainment.

How an endangered listing would affect the nonresearch chimpanzees is not yet clear. Dr. Ross and others argue that costumed chimpanzees cavorting in advertisements suggest to the public that chimpanzee populations in the wild are not in trouble.

Dr. Ross also said chimpanzees trained for entertainment were taken from their mothers at a young age, which affected their development. “Those practices do incur harm,” he said, and should come under the scrutiny of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Dr. Goodall said she was fully committed to seeing an end to the use of chimps in entertainment, as well as in biomedical research. Her goal, she said, is to see all captive chimps in sanctuaries. She said the Fish and Wildlife Service proposal was one more move in a continuing struggle.

“It’s a big step forward,” she said. “We’re getting towards the endgame.”

 

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