This discussion analyzes the laws relevant to the possession of great apes in Rhode Island. The paper examines categories of individuals who possess great apes including persons using them as pets, exhibitors, zoos, sanctuaries, and circuses.
The state of Rhode Island controls possession and importation of great apes by law ( RI ST §§ 4-18-1 et seq .). The law prohibits the importation, receiving, or possession of certain wildlife, including primates, without a valid permit ( RI ST § 4-18-3). Interestingly, this prohibition applies primarily to commercial ownership, while one of the main exceptions to the law is the importation of wild animals as personal pets ( RI ST § 4-18-6(c)).
Like other states, Rhode Island does not define great apes as “endangered” under its own endangered species law ( RI ST §§ 20-37-1 – 5). It does, however, cover them by reference to federal law ( RI ST § 20-37-2). Rhode Island prohibits any commerce of federal protected endangered species.
Finally, great apes are covered under the state’s anti-cruelty law ( RI ST §§ 4-1-1 – 40).
II. How Different Uses of Great Apes are Affected by Law
While Rhode Island’s law appears to prohibit most uses of great apes, different activities are addressed by various state laws. The law regulates the possession of great apes depending on whether a person possesses an ape privately (e.g., as a “pet”), at a zoo, as a sanctuary, or for scientific research purposes. This section examines the laws by those uses.
A. Private Possession of Great Apes
Rhode Island has a law addressing the importation of wild animals into the state. The law applies to all persons, including, but not limited to: educational and research institutions, zoological gardens, schools, colleges, universities, pet stores, animal care facilities, and laboratories ( RI ST § 4-18-1). Under this law, no person shall import into, receive, or possess in the state without first obtaining a permit from the department, certain listed animals, including primates ( RI ST § 4-18-3). The statute defines “primate” as “a nonhuman member of the highest order of mammals, including prosimians, monkeys, and apes” ( RI ST § 4-18-3(8)). While the law clearly applies to commercial users of great apes, one of the main exceptions to the law is the importation of wild animals as personal pets ( RI ST § 4-18-6(c)). Although personal pets are exempt from the other requirements of the statute, a person wishing to import a wild animal as a pet must still obtain a permit from the department. A permit may be granted by the department to import a wild animal as a personal pet, if a written affidavit or declaration under penalty of perjury is completed at the time of entry at the site of first arrival.
B. Possession by Accredited Zoos
Zoological collections and managed propagation facilities that are accredited by the American zoo and aquarium association (AZA) and licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) are exempt from the permit requirements of the importation law ( RI ST § 4-18-6(d)). The animals must be imported or born directly to a facility that is both AZA and USDA licensed. The facilities must comply with the department’s requirements prior to importation, including disease diagnostic tests, veterinary procedures and examinations, and individual identification requirements for each animal. In addition, the department has the right to examine and test wild animals if there is probable cause to suspect that the animals are harboring diseases or parasites that may endanger public or animal health. Measures that the department may use include, but are not limited to: quarantine, treatment, seizure, destruction, and postmortem examination.
While state law or regulation does not use the term “sanctuary,” it appears that possession here would be governed by the state’s wildlife rehabilitation rules (RI Admin Code §§ 25-8-14:1 – 10). The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management adopted new rules concerning the rehabilitation of native wildlife, which went into effect on October 6, 2011. Although the rules mostly apply to rehabilitation of native wildlife, the rules do allow for a licensed veterinarian to provide emergency care to an endangered or threatened species (RI Admin Code §§ 25-8-14:9).
D. Scientific Testing and Research Facilities
Scientific testing and research facilities are covered under Rhode Island’s wildlife importation law. The law applies to all persons, including, but not limited to: educational and research institutions, zoological gardens, schools, colleges, universities, pet stores, animal care facilities, and laboratories ( RI ST § 4-18-1). The law states that no person shall import into, receive, or possess in the state without first obtaining a permit from the department, certain listed animals, including primates ( RI ST § 4-18-3). If a facility imports or possesses wildlife under an importation permit, they must comply with the quarantine requirements for the species they are importing ( RI ST § 4-18-11). For more, see section III(A)(3) below.
III. State Laws Affecting Great Apes in Rhode Island
Rhode Island addresses the use and possession of great apes through several avenues in its laws. The state has a wildlife importation law that limits the importation and possession of certain species, including primates ( RI ST § 4-18-1 et seq.). In addition, Rhode Island’s endangered species law incorporates great apes by reference to the federal law. Finally, great apes are protected from cruelty under the state’s anti-cruelty provision.
A. Importation, Introduction, and Transplantation of Wildlife Law (RI ST § 4-18-1 – 15)
Rhode Island has enacted a law dealing with the importation and possession of exotic wildlife. While the impetus of the law is to “to provide safeguards for the protection of persons in the state from disease hazards associated with imported wild animals,” the application of the law is the prohibition of importation or possession of certain species without a permit.
1. Which Great Apes Are Covered?
The statute defines “primate” as “a nonhuman member of the highest order of mammals, including prosimians, monkeys, and apes” ( RI ST § 4-18-3(8)).
2. What is Prohibited?
Under this law, no person shall import into, receive, or possess in the state without first obtaining a permit from the department, certain listed animals, including primates ( RI ST § 4-18-3). Personal pets under a special permit are exempt from the importation permit requirement ( RI ST § 4-18-6(c)). Zoological collections and managed propagation facilities accredited by the AZA and USDA are also exempt from this chapter ( RI ST § 4-18-6(d)).
3. Standards for Keeping Exotic Wildlife under the Law
The law requires that certain species imported into the state undergo quarantine for specified periods of time ( RI ST § 4-18-11). For primates, the normal quarantine period must provide for a physical examination, examination of a tuberculin test by a veterinarian upon entry, and a repeat physical examination and tuberculin test thirty days later ( RI ST § 4-18-11(a)(1)). Primates may be released from quarantine after completing the second tuberculin test if the following determinations are made by the attending veterinarian: both tuberculin tests are negative; the animals exhibit no visible ulcers; the animals show no clinical evidence of dysentery or diarrhea, emesis, emaciation, contagious skin lesions, central nervous system disturbances, jaundice, or abnormal respiratory signs; there is no evidence of zoonotic disease traced back to the quarantine animals; and the opinion of the attending veterinarian is that the animals are healthy ( RI ST § 4-18-11(a)(1)(i) – (v)).
The accompanying regulations also list several requirements for exotic animals kept under a permit. The animals must be kept in the location and specific enclosures that were inspected and listed on the permit (RI Admin Code § 25-3-13:6). All modifications to enclosures must be inspected and approved by the department before animals are housed there. The animal and its enclosure are also subject to periodic inspection by the department during normal business hours and without prior notice. Finally, the director may order immediate examination and testing of any exotic animal upon suspicion that the animal may be harboring a disease that threatens public or animal health.
Any person who violates any provisions of this chapter shall be fined not less than $100, and the loss of any specimen referred to in this chapter ( RI ST § 4-18-14).
B. Endangered Species of Animals and Plants (RI ST §§ 20-37-1 – 5)
As listed species on the federal list of endangered and threatened species, most great apes are protected under Rhode Island’s Endangered Species Act. This act prohibits the commercial exploitation of such species.
1. Which Great Apes are Covered?
All great apes are covered by the statute’s reference to the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973. The law specifically defines “endangered species” to include “any animal or plant so declared by the United States secretaries of the interior or commerce under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, 16 U.S.C. § 1531 et seq.” ( RI ST § 20-37-2).
2. What is Prohibited?
Under § 20-37-3, commerce in endangered species is strictly prohibited, as it is illegal to “buy, sell, offer for sale, store, transport, import, export, or otherwise traffic in any animal or plant or any part of any animal or plant whether living, dead, processed, manufactured, preserved, or raw if the animal or plant has been declared to be an endangered species by either the United States secretaries of the interior or commerce or the director of the Rhode Island department of environmental management” ( RI ST § 20-37-3).
The act includes exceptions for scientific research or educational display, but only if under the supervision of a legitimate college or university and with a special permit for each species ( RI ST § 20-37-3). A permit cannot be issued if commercial considerations are involved in any way.
3. Standards for Great Apes Kept under Rhode Island’s Endangered Species Law
This section does not deal with housing conditions. There are also no state administrative regulations concerning the care and keeping of captive endangered species. In most of cases where an animal is held under an exception to the state law, a federal permit will be required and housing issues are addressed under the federal regulations. [See 9 C.F.R. 3.75 – 3.92 (housing, feeding and related care for non-human primates); 42 C.F.R. 9.4 & 9.6 (relating to chimpanzees in sanctuaries); 64 Fed Reg 38145 (relating to psychological well-being of non-human primates held by dealers, exhibitors and research facilities)].
Violation of the statute results in fines of $500 to $5,000 or up to one year imprisonment, or both ( RI ST § 20-37-5).
C. Cruelty to Animals (RI ST §§ 4-1-1 – 40)
Rhode Island’s anti-cruelty law is generally applicable to great apes. The statute provides that a person commits the offense of cruelty to animals if he or she overdrives, overloads, overworks, tortures, torments, deprives of necessary sustenance, or cruelly beats, mutilates, or kills “any animal.” “Animal” is defined by the statute as “every living creature except a human being.” Violation results in imprisonment of up to 11 months, or a fine of $50.00 to $500, or both. The law also includes an intentional cruelty provision, which prohibits the malicious killing or wounding of “any animal,” or maliciously administering poison to an animal. Intentional acts of cruelty are punishable by imprisonment of up to 2 years or a fine not exceeding $1,000, or both. In addition, any person convicted of intentional cruelty to animals must complete a mandatory 10 hours of community restitution that cannot be suspended or deferred. The law also makes it a misdemeanor for a person to willfully release an animal from captivity in a park, circus, zoo, or other similar facility. Finally, the statute requires that any facility using live animals for research must register with the department of health or face a $500 fine.
While Rhode Island law prohibits the commercial use of great apes without a valid importation permit, personal possession is exempt from these importation requirements. State law also clearly allows the use of great apes and other wild animals in accredited zoos. While state law and accompanying regulations contain inspection provisions for animals in zoos and facilities with importation permits, the main concern is the spread of disease by wildlife. As is true with many states, there is not an overall law that directly addresses the possession of apes or the specific needs of apes in captivity.