Washington D.C. does not have any statutes or regulations that specifically address Great Apes. Instead, the District has a blanket ban on all animals that are not specifically exempt by statute. Because they are not exempt from the ban, it is illegal to import, possess, and sell gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, and gibbons within the municipality. The ban does not apply to federally licensed exhibitors, but circuses and other temporary exhibitors must obtain a Special Event/Exotic Animal permit (and any required federal permits) to import and display apes. D.C.’s laws do not regulate the importation, possession, or sale of apes by other federally licensed exhibitors, including zoos, sanctuaries, and wildlife parks. Those exhibitors are, however, regulated under federal law and must comply with federal licensing and permit requirements as well as a variety of federal regulations governing the housing and care of primates. In addition, D.C. does have extensive laws governing the treatment of apes (and other animals) that are used in live performances and the general anti-cruelty laws protect those animals from physical abuse and neglect.
The following discussion begins with a general overview of the various state statutes and regulations affecting Great Apes. It then analyzes the applicability of those laws to the possession and use of apes for specific purposes, including their possession as pets, for scientific research, for commercial purposes, and in sanctuaries.
II. DC STATUTES AND REGULATIONS
Although Washington D.C. is not a state, the District has both statutes and municipal regulations governing the possession and treatment of animals. The Animal Control Laws restrict the possession of most animals by the general public and establish permit requirements for certain live animal exhibitors. In addition, both the Animal Control Laws and the general anti-cruelty laws prohibit physical and psychological abuse and/or neglect of apes and other animals.
A. ANIMAL CONTROL LAWS
1. Exotic Animal Restrictions: D.C. Code § 8-1808(h) makes it illegal to conduct any of the following activities with a gorilla, chimpanzee, bonobo, orangutan, gibbon, or other non-exempt animal:
(a) Import, possess, or display;
(b) Offer for sale, trade, barter, exchange, or adoption; or
(c) Give away as a household pet.
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) licensed exhibitors are exempt from the ban and it is legal for any person to offer an ape or other prohibited animal to a public zoo for exhibition purposes.
2. Physical and Mental Abuse in Animal Performances: Under D.C. Code § 8-1808(i), it is illegal for any person to sponsor, promote, train an animal to participate in, contribute to the involvement of an animal in, or attend as a spectator an activity or event in which any animal:
(a) Engages in unnatural behavior;
(b) Is mentally or physically harassed;
(c) Is displayed in such a way that the animal is:
- Abused; or
- Mentally or physically stressed or traumatized; or
(d) Is induced, goaded or encouraged to perform or react through the use of chemical, mechanical, electrical, or manual devices in a manner that will cause, or is likely to cause, physical or other injury or suffering.
This prohibition applies to any activity on public or private property, regardless of the purpose of the activity, and regardless of whether a fee is charged to spectators.
3. Permit to Exhibit Animals: Any person wishing to display, exhibit, or otherwise move animals in the District of Columbia as part of a circus, carnival, or other special performance or event must obtain a permit that governs the care and management of the animals. The D.C Department of Health’s Health Regulation and Licensing Administration (HRLA) issues Special Event/Exotic Animal Permits.
The Department of Health’s Animal Disease Prevention Division enforces the Animal Control Laws. Any person who imports, possesses, sells, exhibits, or abuses an ape in violation of those laws is subject to a maximum $25 dollar fine for the first violation, $50 for the second violation occurring within a 24-month period, and $100 for each subsequent violation occurring within a 24-month period.
B. GENERAL ANTI-CRUELTY LAWS
D.C.’s anti-cruelty laws, which prohibit the neglect or mistreatment of animals, generally apply to Great Apes. Because all captive apes are necessarily dependent on their keepers, the provision requiring owners to provide their animals with proper food, drink, air, light, space, veterinary care, shelter, and protection from the weather is particularly relevant.
In addition to D.C. Code § 8-1808(i), which prohibits the physical and mental abuse of apes and other animals in order to make them perform (see Section II(A)(2), above), D.C. Code § 22-1001 prohibits other acts of physical abuse, including: overworking, torturing, tormenting, cruelly chaining, and cruelly beating or mutilating animals. Finally, Sections 1102 and 1103 of the Cruelty to Animals Law prohibits the cruel or inhumane transport of apes and other animals and sets specific care requirements for animals transported on railroads.
D.C marshals, police officers, and agents of the Washington Humane Society have a duty to enforce the anti-cruelty laws. Any person who commits an act of animal cruelty in violation of D.C. Code § 22-1001 is subject to any or all of the following penalties:
(1) Maximum $250 fine (or $25,000 if serious bodily injury/death was intended or actually occurred);
(2) Maximum 180 days imprisonment (or 5 years if serious bodily injury/death was intended or actually occurred);
(3) Forfeiture of the animal victim(s);
(4) Court ordered psychological counseling or animal cruelty prevention program;
(5) Liability for the cost of caring for seized animals; and
(6) A prohibition on owning animals for a specified period.
III. POSSESSORS OF GREAT APES
In the U.S., captive apes are generally possessed for use as pets, scientific research subjects, for exhibition or other commercial purposes, or they are retired and live in sanctuaries. The remainder of this section discusses how the state’s laws affect apes that are possessed for each of those purposes.
Under D.C. Code § 8-1808(h), it is not legal to keep apes as pets in Washington D.C. The following list outlines what pet owners can and can’t do under the law:
Transportation: Apes cannot be possessed (even for transportation purposes) by the general public.
Sale: Banned, including: donation, gift, or exchange of apes. However, anyone can legally offer an ape to a public zoo for exhibition purposes.
Breeding: Not addressed, but the animals cannot be imported, possessed, or sold, which effectively precludes breeding.
Zoos and other USDA-licensed exhibitors are exempt from D.C.’s ban on the import, possession, display, and sale of apes and other prohibited animals. While the mayor has the authority to regulate the importation of prohibited animals by zoos and other exhibitors, there are currently no rules governing the importation or possession of apes by zoos. Also, D.C. has no minimum standards for the housing and care of apes in zoos. However, all zoos are regulated by the USDA under the Federal Animal Welfare Act and those facilities must comply with the federal minimum standards of care for primates.
C. EXHIBITORS (CLASS C LICENSEES)
There are various types of exhibitors that display apes, including: circuses, wild animal parks, sanctuaries, and performing animal acts. Under D.C.’s Animal Control laws, USDA-licensed exhibitors may import, possess, and display apes, though circuses and temporary animal exhibits must have a Special Event/Exotic Animal Permit issued by the D.C Department of Health, Health Regulation and Licensing Administration (HRLA).
D.C. Code § 8-1808(i) makes it illegal for exhibitors to force an animal to engage in unnatural behaviors or to inflict physical or psychological injuries on animals, including apes, in order to make them perform. In addition, the use of chemical, mechanical, electrical, or manual devices in a manner that is likely to cause physical or other injury/suffering is outlawed (regardless of whether injury or suffering actually results). D.C. Code § 8-1808(i) not only penalizes the actual abusers, but also owners, operators, and spectators at public or private shows in which animals are illegally forced to perform. See Section II(A)(2), above.
In addition to the general anti-cruelty laws, which require that animals have proper food, drink, air, light, space, veterinary care, shelter, and protection from the weather, HRLA may impose certain care and management requirements for animals held under a Special Event/Exotic Animal Permit. Also, all exhibitors with apes are regulated by the USDA under the Federal Animal Welfare Act  and must comply with the federal minimum standards of care for primates.
D.C. has no laws governing the establishment of exotic animal sanctuaries, nor does it exempt sanctuaries from the general exotic animal ban under D.C. Code § 8-1808(h). Only federally licensed exhibitors are exempt from that ban. See Section III(C), above.
E. RESEARCH FACILITIES
D.C. Code § 8-1808(h) generally prohibits the import, possession, and sale of prohibited animals, including all species of apes. Research facilities are not expressly exempt from that ban. It is unclear whether the ban applies to government agencies, educational institutions, and other facilities that possess apes (and other prohibited animals) for scientific research.
Under Washington D.C.’s laws, the import, possession, and sale of apes and other exotic animals is prohibited. Federally licensed exhibitors are exempt from the ban and with the exception of circuses and temporary animal shows, those exhibitors are generally not required to obtain local permits to import, possess, display, breed, or sell apes. Under the local Animal Control Laws, it is illegal to physically or psychologically abuse apes (and other animals) in order to induce those animals to perform and the general anti-cruelty laws outlaw various types of mistreatment and neglect. In addition, all exhibitors with apes must comply with federal licensing and permit requirements, and with the USDA’s regulations governing the housing, care, and treatment of primates.
 Exempt animals include: domestic dogs, cats, rodents, and rabbits, and certain birds, snakes, fish, and turtles. D.C. Code § 8-1808(h)(1).
 D.C. Code § 8-1808(k); See also, D.C. Munic. Regs. tit. 24 § 905 (permit requirements for the possession or display of captured wild animals on any public space).
 For purposes of the anti-cruelty laws, the term “animal” includes “all living and sentient creatures (human beings excepted).” D.C. Code § 22-1013.
 See, D.C. Code § 22-1001(b) (defining the term “cruelly chain” and giving specific examples of types and methods of chaining that are illegal).
 The latter provision provides criminal penalties for the animal abuse, while the former provision does not. See also, D.C. Code § 22-1002 (other cruelties to animals).
 D.C. Code § 8-1808(k); See also, D.C. Munic. Regs. tit. 24 § 905 (permit requirements for the possession or display of captured wild animals on any public space); Circuses must also comply with various regulations governing location and length of performances and hours during which they may operate. D.C. Munic. Regs. tit. 19 § 1300 and D.C. Munic. Regs. tit. 19 § 1302.