Second Lawsuit Filed to Stop Transfer of Chimpanzees to ‘Roadside Zoo’
At a research facility in Atlanta, Georgia, eight chimpanzees wait in limbo–out of work with nowhere to go.
The hairy retirees–Abby, Agatha, Elvira, Faye, Fritz, Lucas, Tara, and Georgia–were slated to follow up their careers as biomedical research subjects with a life of being gawked at by tourists at the Wingham Wildlife Park in Kent, England.
But a second lawsuit was filed by the New England Anti-Vivisection Society (NEAVS) on Monday, delaying the transfer for the time being.
In November 2015, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) granted a permit to the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta to offload the eight primates to the English zoo. USFWS withdrew the permit following a suit filed by NEAVS, an organization that fights to eliminate the use of animals as test subjects. The organization cites the zoo’s lack of accreditation, inexperience with caring for chimpanzees, and intentions of breeding as reasons for its complaint.
FWS responded by delaying the permit and extending the public comment period. Last Thursday, however, USFWS announced it would reissue the permit as early as May 1.
“In reopening it, we’re shocked that world renowned conservationists are against it, yet FWS still believes it doesn’t have to obey laws of reason or true interpretation of the language of laws,” said Dr. Theodora Capaldo, president and executive director at NEAVS and the leading plaintiff in the most recent lawsuit against USFWS.
The language of the law in this case is crucial. The Endangered Species Act, enacted in 1976, provided a boon to animals classified as “endangered,” a status that guarantees such animals will not be relegated to a life in a laboratory. Captive chimpanzees are deemed “threatened” (wild ones are considered “endangered”), allowing them to be used as subjects in biomedical and behavioral studies.
But last June, FWS Director Dan Ashe recognized the classification as a “mistake,” and initiated a move to grant all Pan troglodytes (chimpanzees) endangered status, prompting private research labs like Yerkes to quickly find a suitable home for the animals.
Before the decision to transfer the eight chimps–who constitute a fraction of Yerkes’s chimp population–five U.S. based primate sanctuaries offered to house them. Primate Rescue Center, a sanctuary in Nicholasville, Kentucky, met with top staff from Yerkes in April 2014, according to the sanctuary’s executive director, when both sides anticipated the rebranding of chimps from “threatened” to “endangered.”
The preemptive move failed when Yerkes pulled out after the sanctuary requested financial support for a plot of land in northern Georgia where they planned to house the chimps.
“It was like a punch in the gut [when Yerkes announced the zoo transfer] because nobody else was afforded to opportunity to say ‘hey wait, let’s talk about keeping these chimp in the U.S.’,” said April Truitt, Executive Director of the nonprofit Primate Rescue Center sanctuary, whose 30 acres in leafy central Kentucky is currently home to over 50 primates, including 11 chimps.
Prominent primatologists and anthropologists spoke out during the second round of public comment, which commenced in late February.
“If USFW responds to the very important achievement of treating chimpanzees as an endangered species by allowing Yerkes to offload its chimpanzees to a commercial zoo, the system will be undermined,” wrote Richard Wrangham, professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard and founder of The Kibale Chimpanzee Project.
Richard Leakey, a famed paleoanthropologist and son of legendary archeological couple Louis and Mary Leakey, also spoke out against the move in a public comment:
“As an Ambassador for the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP), I am committed to ensuring the best possible future for chimpanzees around the world… I cannot find any reasons why this proposed transfer should be approved.”
Yerkes issued a statement on its website when the second round of public comment was announced:
“We remain confident in our decision to donate eight chimpanzees to WWP [Wingham Wildlife Park] in the commitment WWP is making to provide lifetime care for these animals.”
The transfer was indeed approved, largely due to a proposed donation from Yerkes and Wingham to the Population and Sustainability Network, an international nonprofit group that focuses on improving women’s health. After granting captive chimpanzees “endangered” status last June, the USFWS requires all exports of the animals to be actions “that have been shown to support or enhance survival of chimpanzees include habitat restoration and research on chimpanzees in the wild that contributes to improved management and recovery.” It seems a donation to a group that focuses on another primate–human beings–fits that description.
When the permit was initially granted to Yerkes last November, both the research facility and the zoo in Kent proposed to meet the new requirement by donating to the Kibale Chimpanzee Project and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Both turned down the donations.
The USFWS would not comment on pending litigation, according to an email sent from their Division of Public Affairs.
At least one chimpanzee advocate supports the move.
After witnessing the “wonderful extensive indoor and outdoor housing which has been purpose-built to receive chimpanzees” at Wingham, Jane Goodall commented in favor of USFWS’s decision. Goodall is one of the world’s foremost experts of chimpanzees and has studied the creatures in the forests of Tanzania for over five decades.
And while the eight chimps awaiting their fate in Atlanta declined to comment for this story, Truitt, Capaldo and a host of others who have intimate experience with the animals believe it’s simply unfair for them to endure a second life as a “commodity” at a “roadside zoo” in a foreign country. Truitt stressed that this case is about more than eight individuals, but can set a precedent that might ensure retired research chimps a future as curiosities behind a glass enclosure.
“It is about these eight chimps, but it also is about the other over 200 that are privately owned,” she said. “Just keep them here. I believe that’s what we should do.”