In Washington, all gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos, and gibbons are classified as “potentially dangerous wild animals” that pose “serious health and safety risks” to the community. Accordingly, the importation, possession, and use of those animals are heavily regulated at the state level. In 2007, the state legislature passed the Dangerous Wild Animal Act (DWA), making it illegal for many individuals and facilities to import, possess, and breed all species of apes. Under the DWA, it is illegal to import, possess, breed, or sell apes for use as pets and for most exhibition and commercial purposes. The ban includes a grandfather clause, which means that anyone who lawfully possessed an ape before July 22, 2007 is allowed to keep that ape for the remainder of the animal’s life. Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited zoos, out-of state circuses, certain wildlife sanctuaries, and research facilities are exempt from the Act.
While accredited zoos, wildlife sanctuaries, and research facilities may still import apes, Washington law states that these apes must be accompanied by an entry permit and certificate of veterinary inspection. In order to protect the public health, it is generally illegal to import an ape that has been infected with, or exposed to, any communicable disease; however, certain research facilities may be granted special permission to import diseased apes.
Even though Washington has extensive state laws that deal with the importation and possession of apes, it lacks similar laws dealing with the facilities and treatment of apes. Specifically, the state lacks statutes or regulations that set specific minimum standards of care for captive apes. The general animal-cruelty laws do prohibit the outright abuse and neglect of most captive apes and the state’s animal health laws prohibit keeping those animals in a manner that constitutes a public nuisance. However, those laws do little to ensure that apes are maintained in conditions that meet their physical, social, and psychological needs. The only specific minimum standards of care for captive apes in Washington come from federal laws, which do not apply to apes that are possessed as pets or by sanctuaries that do not publicly exhibit the animals. Although there are many local ordinances in Washington that regulate the possession and use of apes, almost none of those ordinances actually set specific minimum standards for the care of apes.
Because Washington does not have a mandatory registration program for apes, it is difficult to gage the actual number of captive apes that currently reside within the state. However, due to the 2007 ban and the trend in local governments outlawing the possession and exhibition of those animals, that number is certain to decline in the coming years. The challenge will be for state and local officials to ensure that the captive apes that do remain within the state are accounted for and maintained in a manner that ensures the health, safety, and welfare of the animals and the communities in which they reside.