Animal Legal and Historical Center
Great Apes and the Law: A complete resource for the legal status of the Great Apes within the United States
Michigan State University College of Law

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Overview of the Legal Control of Great Apes

Hanna Coate

Animal Legal & Historical Center
Publish Date:
Place of Publication: Michigan State University College of Law
Printable Version

Overview of the Legal Control of Great Apes

Traditionally, all captive animals in the U.S., including Great Apes, have been considered personal property, legally equivalent to a car, a camera, or a pair of shoes. Property laws primarily seek to protect a human’s interest (here, the animal’s owner) in keeping and using his property free from governmental or private interference. Those laws do not recognize any legal interest for the property that is independent from that of its owner’s. For example, cars do not have a legal right to be maintained pursuant to the manufacturer’s recommendations and cameras do not have a legal right to be protected from being dropped in the toilet. As property, an owner has the right to treat those things however he chooses, regardless of whether his actions will damage or destroy the property. It is precisely here that the legal status of apes (and other animals) diverges from that of non-living property. Federal, state, and local laws all control how a property owner can treat his apes. All jurisdictions within the United States have criminal laws that recognize an ape’s interest in being free from abuse and neglect, which outweigh a property owner’s interest in using his property as he pleases. In addition, the Federal Animal Welfare Act and many state and local laws have more recently recognized an ape’s interest in being maintained in a manner that promotes his physical, psychological and social well-being. In some cases the laws protect this interest by restricting or banning the private possession of Great Apes and in other cases, the laws set minimum standards for the housing and care of those animals.

Besides protecting the interests of the owner and the animals themselves, ownership of apes can also be controlled by the government for the health and safety of citizens generally. In order to protect the public health from the disease risks posed by Great Apes, federal laws restrict and regulate the importation and interstate transport of those animals. State and local laws may also restrict or regulate the importation of apes and authorize public health officials to monitor, quarantine, test, inspect, confiscate, and destroy apes that have been infected with, or exposed to certain diseases. Also, local laws often protect the public health by enacting zoning and sanitation laws that restrict the areas where apes may be kept and prohibit the keeping of the animals in a manner that creates an unhealthy environment.

Several high-profile and gruesome ape attacks in recent years have left little doubt as to the safety risks posed by those animals. State and local governments have exercised their traditional police power to restrict or regulate the possession and use of apes to protect the general public from those safety risks. Many laws simply prohibit the possession of apes, while others restrict the purposes for which apes can be kept. Some states, counties, and municipalities have established permit programs that set minimum qualifications for individuals and facilities that possess apes. Some laws actually regulate the businesses that use apes, like circuses, by banning live animal shows, setting minimum standards for the construction of animal holding facilities, prohibiting direct public contact with the animals, or requiring those businesses to submit performance schedules to state or local officials. Local zoning laws, which prohibit the keeping of apes in residential communities (or other zones), also protect public safety by seeking to maintain a degree of separation between those animals and humans.

Society also has an interest in protecting the environment and preserving a healthy global biodiversity. To that end, the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) and several state laws recognize the status of apes as “endangered” or “threatened” species and place restrictions on the importation, transportation, sale, possession, and use of those animals. Those laws primarily aim to protect the remaining wild populations by severely restricting domestic use of, or access to, wild apes. However, they also protect captive apes by restricting the purposes for which those animals may be possessed; for example, the ESA does not allow apes to be sold or transported across state lines for use as pets.

Finally, several recent court cases have recognized that humans have an “aesthetic” interest in seeing apes and other animals maintained in a humane, or at least legally adequate, environment. The Federal Animal Welfare Act, and many state and local laws protect this “aesthetic” interest by prohibiting the outright abuse and neglect of those animals. Also, many dangerous, wild, or exotic animal laws either prohibit the private possession of apes or set minimum standards for their housing and care.

Although apes and other animals are considered personal property under domestic law, this classification over-simplifies their legal status in the U.S. Unlike inanimate objects, the law does recognize that apes have interests that are independent of (and potentially in conflict with) the interests of their owners. Captive apes have a legally recognized interest in being free from abuse and neglect; additionally, federal and many state laws, recognize their interest in being maintained in a manner that promotes their physical, psychological, and social well-being. Also, despite their classification as personal property, the movement, possession, and use of apes is restricted at various levels of the government. Federal, state, and local laws all prohibit, restrict, or regulate apes and those who possess them in order to protect society’s  overriding interest in preserving public health, safety, and welfare. 

Click here to see a chart that illustrates the different legal interests surrounding Great Apes.

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