Captive chimpanzees carrying the status of “threatened” may possibly be upgraded to “endangered” by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) according to a latest announcement by FWS officials. While wild chimpanzees have been designated as endangered since 1990, captive chimps have not since been upgraded to endangered status. The change in status is seen as a move to help usher in the end of using chimpanzees in biomedical research, and could halt a number of critical biomedical research projects that employ experimentation on chimpanzees.
Researchers all over United States are deeply concerned over this announcement, as suggested by Dr. John VandeBerg, the chief scientific officer at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio,”I am deeply disappointed. Human and chimpanzee lives will be lost if the proposed rule is implemented.”
The Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio currently holds one of the largest colonies of captive chimpanzees available for biomedical research programs.
Details of the rule designed to protect the wild chimpanzees:
FWS has proposed to change the current permitting process involving wild chimpanzees, suggesting that the research programs that aim to “enhance the propagation or survival” of chimps will get the permit. In addition, rules will also be changed regarding the sales of chimpanzee cell lines, tissue, or blood across state lines.
The petition filed in March 2010 by a law firm representing renowned animal conservation groups like the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Jane Goodall Institute and Humane Society of the United States set the milestone for this proposed rule change by the FWS. According to this petition, the use of wildlife and chimpanzees in pet and entertainment industries is directly harming the conservation efforts.
Kathleen Conlee, Vice president for animal research at the Humane Society of the United States, expressed her support for the proposed rule change of permits in these words:
“Importantly, now if anyone proposes to use a chimpanzee in a harmful way, there will be an opportunity for us to comment on these permits because there will be a layer of transparency.”
The public can comment on the implementation of this new rule change for a period of 60 days.
The proposed rule and NIH research projects:
This new rule will potentially impact the research projects funded and sponsored by the National Institute of Health involving wild chimpanzees. Although, the FWS site appears to provide a possible exception to this problem in their listed FAQs on the site, stating:
“NIH anticipates that critical NIH-funded research using chimpanzees will be able to continue under permits that may be required as part of the final rule”
However, since most chimp-funded research programs at NIH do not provide conservation per-se, it still remains to be seen if the new rule will probably affect many projects.
A research report conducted by Institute of Medicine (IOM) committee on December 2011 titled, Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research suggested that currently approximately 937 captive chimpanzees are available for research in United States, of which the NIH supports in 612 projects. In a short period between 2001 and 2010, over 110 chimpanzee-related studies were funded by the NIH (44 or 55% involving hepatitis research). Other research projects that were funded by the NIH focused primarily on the neuroscience, behavioral research and comparative genomics.
The Institute of Medicine (IOM) committee argued that most of the recent research projects are unnecessary and recommended NIH to review and revamp the process. In addition, NIH’s Council of Council recommended to maintain a colony of only 50 chimps (while retiring and returning most of the animals to sanctuaries.
What are available options for research projects that do not directly benefit Chimpanzees?
Roddy Gabel suggested that such research projects can still get the permit by “enhancement,” akin to a carbon-offset program. Roddy Gabel oversees the permitting for import and export of wildlife at FWS and explained that in order to conduct a specific study that is not directly benefitting chimpanzees a permit can be exchanged if the institute or research project agrees to make a financial contribution to support the effort of chimpanzee conservation.
“We’re already talking to NIH and we’ll be talking more intensively about what’s possible to meet the enhancement requirement. At this point we haven’t closed the door on anything.”
Robby explained that the permitting rule will definitely provide conservation benefits to the wild life and chimpanzees. He said:
“People don’t just get a free pass to use the animal when there’s a conservation need out there.”
Be sure to read our info page on the Texas Biomedical Research Institute on BioNews Texas