Citing Endangered Species Act, humane group sues to keep chimps on US soil, and pushes for sanctuary placement.
By Vicki Croke
A plan to move eight chimpanzees from a research center in the United States to an unaccredited zoo in the United Kingdom has pitted an array of top-notch primatologists, biologists, and humane organizations against the US government and its surprising ally—famed chimp expert Jane Goodall.
On Monday, for the second time in six months, the New England Anti-Vivisection Society (NEAVS) is taking the fight to Federal District Court in Washington to try to prevent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from issuing a permit to transfer Abby, Agatha, Elvira, Faye, Fritz, Lucas, Tara and Georgia. They are the chimps from Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta who are slated to be moved to the Wingham Wildlife Park (WWP) in Kent, England. The wildlife park has created new indoor/outdoor exhibit space for the eight, but has never housed chimpanzees before and does not have accreditation from the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria.
The coalition opposed to the move believes that the transfer violates the legal protections provided by the Endangered Species Act. And the opinions of the opponents, provided during Fish and Wildlife’s public comment period, and in interviews, raise several concerns: Can a zoo that has never housed chimps be prepared to meet the special needs of those who have been held for their whole lives in a research facility? How difficult will it be for these animals to transition into a setting that places them in front of crowds? What guarantees are there for the future of these chimps and any offspring they produce? What do we owe these sentient creatures who have been raised for research and are now entering retirement? Could these animals or their babies be sold to people or facilities who have no obligation to follow US protection laws?
The suit filed by NEAVS seeks to stop the transfer by quickly blocking the permit, which could be issued early next week. Central to the argument is the ruling by the Fish and Wildlife Service last June changing the status, effective last September, of captive chimps to endangered here in the United Sates. Under the conditions of the Endangered Species Act, all chimps here receive special protections, which severely restrict the use of chimpanzees in research and provides extra protections for any kind of captive chimp here.
As Wayne Pacelle, head of the Humane Society of the United States told us at WBUR’s The Wild Life last year when the ruling took place: “Now, all chimpanzees, whether wild or captive, are going to be protected by one of the strongest laws we have in the US for animals—that’s the Endangered Species Act—that forbids taking these animals, injuring, or harming them for any purpose except to advance the conservation of the species in the wild.”
The last part of that quote is crucial to those who oppose the transfer of what some are calling the Yerkes 8: How will sending them to a zoo overseas “advance the conservation of the species in the wild”?
Yerkes says it plans to donate money to the Population and Sustainability Network. In a statement earlier this year, Yerkes said: “By partnering with WWP and the Population and Sustainability Network (PSN), our organizations will enhance the lives of wild chimpanzees by, for example, lessening human-induced impacts on them, such as reducing pressure for agricultural land use and thereby protecting chimpanzee natural habitats.”
But Yerkes intention to donate money to a non-profit group in order to transfer chimps to a for-profit zoo, has infuriated many.
Richard Wrangham, the noted Harvard University professor who has studied chimps in the wild for more than 40 years, said by phone that he found it “very frustrating that in the first major question arising after chimpanzees have finally been formally listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service within the United States, that an action should be taken that is in clear contravention of the principles of protecting an endangered species.”
Dr. Wrangham, in fact, reports that the Kibale Chimpanzee Project, the long-term study of chimpanzees, which he founded in Uganda, was offered a donation from a charity connected to the Wingham Wildlife Park last fall. However, he declined the money, he reported to the Fish and Wildlife Service when “we were alerted that it was being given as a condition of the transfer of chimpanzees from Yerkes to WWP.”
In a statement, Theodora Capaldo, NEAVS’ CEO, said, “Rather than heed the advice of conservationists that this export will set a dangerous precedent by informing the world that the U.S. sanctions commercial use of endangered species in exchange for promises of money to third parties, FWS is facilitating private entities’ commercial interests in exploiting endangered species.”
According to the New York Times, Yerkes, which has already given “seven chimps to the Chattanooga Zoo in Tennessee,” and “still has more than 50,” is trying to reduce the number of chimpanzees in its care. Yerkes has issued a statement online rebutting the charges of those seeking to stop the transfer, saying, in part, that their “focus always has been on what will be best for the chimpanzees, the Yerkes Research Center and human health.”
Capaldo would like to see the chimpanzees go to sanctuaries here in the United States that she says are eager to have them, though Yerkes disagrees with that prospect: “Only two existing sanctuaries have officially contacted Yerkes,” the center says in an online statement. “The first presented an opportunity for a very small number of chimpanzees, which we determined was not an appropriate option. The second sanctuary contacted us in Jan. 2016 and offered to take the eight chimpanzees if the plans to donate them to the Wingham Wildlife Park (WWP) fell through. Yerkes has evaluated sanctuary options and will continue to do so, but there are far more research chimpanzees (approx. 308) that will need space in sanctuaries than there is space available.”
When the Fish and Wildlife Service invited comments from the public on the proposed transfer, an avalanche of famous names from the animal world weighed in. Among them, Richard Leakey of the Kenya Wildlife Service; Duke University’s Brian Hare; Roger Fouts and Deborah Fouts; members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums here in the US, European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, and the European Endangered Species Program; and the Born Free Foundation.
But, as Stephannie Stokes reported for WABE in Atlanta, Fish and Wildlife may have a different take on the issue at hand:
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Tim Van Norman, who oversees import and export permits, said his office reviewed the terms of the transfer and the zoo’s facility and found that Yerkes’ application complied with requirements for endangered species.
“It’s not really for us to make a decision that there is a better facility within the United States. That’s outside the purview of what our permitting process is,” Van Norman said.
One person supporting the transfer really stands out. Dr. Jane Goodall, the woman whose name is synonymous in the minds of many with expertise in, as well as compassion for, chimpanzees. It’s unusual to see her part company with many of those opposing the move.
In a story today in the UK’s KentOnline, Dr. Goodall is quoted as saying:
“I was able to visit the Wingham park last month and saw first hand the wonderful extensive indoor and outdoor housing which has been purpose built to receive chimpanzees.
“The staff there are well-qualified, caring and have already visited the Yerkes research centre to meet the members of the group.
“The owners are committed to ensuring the long-term care of these chimpanzees and to enriching their lives.
“Having considered all the factors involved in the transportation and rehabilitation of these chimps, my conclusion is that Wingham will provide them with a suitable new home for life.
“There are hundreds of ex-lab, pet and entertainment chimps in the US needing sanctuary.
“Admittedly, this is only eight, but at least they will be catered for.”
Dr. Capaldo, on the other hand, spoke of the sorrow she feels to see these eight chimpanzees being treated as “a commodity for commercial profit.” Her voice breaking, she said in a telephone interview, “Send them to sanctuaries, give them the dignity of retirement, and allow them to live their final days in the safety and the protection of people who truly care about them.”