Under the Federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for ensuring the welfare of Great Apes that are possessed and transported for commercial trade, exhibition, and scientific research. The agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) regulates the possession of captive apes for those purposes by: (1) licensing dealers and exhibitors; and (2) registering scientific research facilities and carriers or intermediate handlers. Each regulated activity has certain rules governing the possession and use of apes for that particular purpose. In addition, all regulated facilities that possess apes for any purpose must also comply with certain administrative requirements (like keeping records and filing reports) and minimum standards for the housing, maintenance, care, and transport of those animals. Primates receive special consideration under the AWA because regulated facilities must also provide a physical environment adequate to promote the psychological well-being of primates. Some activities, such as keeping apes as pets or in certain sanctuaries, are not regulated at all under the AWA. As a result, any laws addressing the health, safety, and welfare of those apes (and the communities in which they reside) come from the state or local level, if at all.
Any person that wishes to engage in the commercial trade or exhibition of a Great Ape must possess a USDA license prior to conducting a regulated activity. The agency issues three different licenses; the first two are issued to “dealers” that engage in the commercial trade of apes. “Class A” licensees are breeders that deal only in the apes that they breed and raise. “Class B” licensees are all dealers that are not breeders, including: suppliers, brokers, wholesalers, retailers, auction operators, and private transporters. The third type of license, called a “Class C” license, is issued to public or private entities that publicly display apes for performances; photo opportunities; commercial promotion or advertising; television, movies, and other productions; recreational or educational observation; and direct contact opportunities. In order to obtain a license, applicants must meet certain minimum personal qualifications and have approved facilities. Once they are licensed, all dealers and exhibitors must comply with all AWA rules and USDA regulations. APHIS conducts routine inspections on all licensed facilities, usually annually, but may also conduct more frequent inspections in response to public complaints or to monitor a facility that is not in compliance with the AWA. APHIS can suspend or revoke a USDA license for repeated or egregious violations of the AWA. Also, any licensee that violates any other federal, state, or local law pertaining to the transportation, ownership, neglect, or welfare of animals may have his or her license terminated.
All research facilities as well as airlines, trucking companies, freight handlers and other businesses that transport apes must be registered with the USDA. The process for becoming registered involves little more than filing a registration form with APHIS, and agreeing to comply with applicable rules and regulations. Unlike the screening process for licensure, registrants are not subject to a pre-registration inspection and APHIS has no authority to deny the registration of an individual or facility. While the AWA does not restrict the types of experiments that can be conducted on apes, research facilities are supposed to adhere to certain standards governing the use and treatment of those animals during and after experiments. The standards, which address issues such as pain management, anesthesia, and surgery instruments, do not have to be followed by researchers if doing so would interfere with the purpose of an experiment. Research facilities are each required to create an internal committee, generally composed of facility employees, to oversee experiments involving apes and to inspect the research facility to ensure that it is maintaining the animals in compliance with the AWA. In addition, those facilities must submit annual reports on their use of animals in experiments to APHIS. The agency conducts routine inspections of registered facilities to ensure that animals are maintained and transported in compliance with the AWA. APHIS does not have the authority to suspend or terminate the registration of a facility, regardless of the frequency or severity of AWA violations.
The AWA, which was enacted nearly half a century ago, has tremendous significance as the first federal law in U.S. history to offer protection to captive apes. Although it has evolved a great deal since its inception, offering ever-increasing levels of protection to captive apes, the AWA is defined as much by its limitations as by its accomplishments. While the Act protects apes that are possessed for commercial trade, exhibition, and scientific research, it does not offer any legal protection for apes that are maintained as pets or in certain sanctuaries. Also, enforcement of the Act has proven to be a tremendous challenge for APHIS, for a few reasons. On one hand, the agency has only about 100 inspectors to monitor the conditions at more than 10,000 regulated facilities throughout the country. On the other hand, even with an adequate number of enforcement officers, some of the Act’s minimum standards of care are difficult to interpret and enforce because they lack specific requirements. Despite its significance, and perhaps because of its limitations, additional state and local laws which offer equal or greater protection to captive apes are vital for ensuring that those animals receive adequate legal protection.