Chimpanzees, one of the four species of great apes, are the closest genetic relatives to human beings. Once abundant throughout their African ranges, chimps are now endangered due to poaching, habitat destruction, and the bushmeat trade. A geographically distinct population of chimpanzees exists in the United States, and these chimps are legally bred for use in the biomedical and entertainment industries. Some countries have banned all use of chimpanzees in medical research, while others barely enforce laws banning chimpanzee poaching. The United States fits in neither of those categories—it is a party to international laws aimed at conserving chimpanzees, but within its borders chimps are simple property, subject to regulations that minimally guard their welfare.
The main laws that affect chimpanzees are found in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) regulations, the Animal Welfare Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Chimp Act, in addition to various state laws that touch chimpanzees within their coverage of all mammals. CITES regulations are a product of international efforts to conserve endangered species, but even though the African countries in which chimps are found participate in CITES, enforcement is largely ineffective. CITES requires all participating countries to manage endangered species populations and to actively halt trade in that species. Nonetheless, illegal trade in chimpanzee parts and meat continues, and wild populations are steadily declining.
The Animal Welfare Act covers chimps in research and exhibition in the United States, and is made up mainly of regulations concerning transportation, housing, feeding, and other basic requirements. While the AWA includes a requirement for the psychological well-being of chimpanzees, that requirement is scantily defined, and difficult to enforce. Any dealer, exhibitor or research facility that deals with chimpanzees must conform to AWA requirements, but enforcement is difficult because the treatment afforded by those entities is often not subject to public view. Further, to bring an action under the AWA, standing must first be established, and doing so in animal cases has proved thus far to be difficult.
The Endangered Species Act is another statute borne of international cooperation, covering chimpanzees found anywhere in the world. The ESA imposes a heavy mandate upon participating countries, requiring them to affirmatively conserve chimp species and the habitats within which they are found, and to take steps to “bring back” the wild populations. Unfortunately, both international and local enforcement mechanisms have proved to be inadequate under this law. Further, the ESA also includes an exception for chimpanzees born to chimps that were legally brought into the United States after a certain date. Those chimpanzees are outside the purview of the most strenuous of the ESA’s regulations, and that loophole represents a political compromise allowing the entertainment and research industries to continue using chimps in their work.
The CHIMP (Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection Act) was passed in 2000, and allows for the establishment of a sanctuary system for chimpanzees that are “retired” from the biomedical research industry. The CHIMP Act puts forth several requirements for the facilities housing these chimps, and for the type of living arrangements to be provided them for the rest of their lives, but also includes several “exceptions” under which a retired chimp can be called back into the laboratory life. Generally, only chimps that are federally owned fall under the CHIMP Act, but there are methods by which non-federally owned chimps may enter the system of sanctuaries.
Clearly, chimpanzees do not receive adequate protection under any law, federal or international. However, since the United States is only able to do so much to affect international adherence with the conservation laws, it is more important than ever that those wishing to save the species work to strengthen existing American laws and close the loopholes within them. To that end, American perceptions of chimpanzees as creatures that are simply subject to human whim and will must be transformed to a perception of chimpanzees as autonomous beings with legal personhood.