Are Captive Chimps an Endangered Species?
While the NIH may not have received as many comments in response to its RFI, plenty of public comment has been filed in response to another proposed rule change affecting chimpanzees. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) is reviewing whether to amend the designation of captive chimps from “threatened” to “endangered,” which would protect them under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Current law distinguishes between captive chimps and wild chimps, with only the latter protected as endangered species. FWS launched a review of the status of chimps last September following a petition by six groups.
If the petition is granted, “it would make research a lot more difficult,” Dr. Watson said. “It would become difficult to request samples like blood samples or tissues from deceased animals, and the only type of research theoretically that would be freely allowed would be research that directly benefits chimpanzees. And of course, the research that we do now is aimed mainly at humans. But some does benefit chimpanzees.”
According to the IOM report, 110 NIH-sponsored projects between 2001 and 2010 involved chimpanzee research: 44 in hepatitis, 13 comparative genomics projects, 11 were neuroscience studies, nine were in AIDS/HIV, seven were for behavioral research, and the rest in areas such as malaria, respiratory syncytial virus, and projects supporting chimpanzee colonies. “While the chimpanzee has been a valuable animal model in past research, most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary,” the report declared.
A majority of commenters to FWS agreed with the petition, contending that all five of the agency’s factors for endangered status were met by captive chimpanzees: They have been exploited for food, entertainment, personal property, and research; they have encountered disease through research and natural behavior contact with humans; wild chimp populations fell by about two-thirds during the 35 years FWS has distinguished between captive and wild chimps; they are inadequately protected by existing law; and their plight harms wild chimpanzees by minimizing the threat to their survival.
“Chimpanzees in laboratories live in a constant state of stress, under the relentless threat of physically invasive research protocols,” remarked Jane Goodall, Ph.D., founder of the Jane Goodall Institute. “It is ironic that much of this research involves investigation of diseases of the immune system, such as HIV/AIDS. Yet, the response of the immune system to a particular treatment may be skewed if the system is stressed.
“This experimentation, when our closest living relatives are often treated as nothing more than inconveniently strong and potentially aggressive guinea pigs, certainly does not foster respect for the chimpanzee species and as such does not promote conservation,” Dr. Goodall added. She noted that the U.S. was the only nation actively involved in invasive biomedical research on captive chimpanzees.
Instead of keeping chimpanzees in research labs, Dr. Goodall commented, “science can benefit greatly from obtaining data in a noninvasive manner from wild chimpanzees living in protected areas and sanctuaries across Africa.”