Chimpanzee Laws

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Brief Summary of Laws Concerning Chimpanzees
Alicia Ivory (2007)


The image of chimpanzees as curious mischief-makers is as familiar to American culture as the wily fox or the wise old owl.   While from an early age we learn the anthropomorphic characteristics attributed to chimps (or, those human qualities associated with animals), most people’s understanding of the actual nature of life as a chimpanzee is extremely limited.

Chimpanzees are in danger of extinction in the wild.   Their populations have been decimated by hunting and poaching associated with the bushmeat trade in African countries—adult chimpanzees are slaughtered for sale as food and the babies are taken to be sold as pets.   Further complicating the problem is the loss of habitat that threatens many species around the world—this is also a serious concern but does not do as much immediate and large-scale damage as the bushmeat trade.   Regulations under the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species are meant to protect wild chimps, but have not done much to protect the species.

In the United States, chimpanzees are bred for use in research and entertainment.   They are covered under federal laws like the Animal Welfare Act and the Endangered Species Act have been enacted to protect animal welfare, but the gaps in protection are wide, especially when it comes to chimpanzees.   Notably, the ESA does not apply to the chimpanzees bred in the United States, and the AWA allows exceptions for exhibitors, dealers and researchers.

It is clear that chimpanzees are in a dire predicament—international laws are insufficient to help recover wild chimpanzee populations, and federal laws leave so many holes that chimpanzees in the U.S. are barely protected at all.   Any hope for recovering wild populations and alleviating the suffering of chimpanzees used in medicine and entertainment depends fully on re-evaluating and changing the above-mentioned laws so that chimpanzee welfare is the primary concern.   This, in turn, can best be accomplished by changing public perception of chimpanzees from curious mischief-makers to sentient beings that are fully capable of joy, grief and fear—and thus fully entitled to legal protection.


Overview of Laws Affecting Chimpanzees
Alicia S. Ivory (2007)

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.


Related articles

Biological Overview of the Chimpanzee

A Step at a Time: New Zealand’s Progress Toward Hominid Rights, by Rowan Taylor, 7 Animal L. 35 (2001).

Could a Chimpanzee or Bonobo Take the Stand? By Angela Campbell, 8 Animal L. 243 (2002).


Related cases

Howard v. Chimps, Inc ., 284 P.3d 1181 (Or. App. 2012). While cleaning a cage at a chimpanzee sanctuary, the plaintiff was twice attacked by a chimpanzee, which left the plaintiff without much of her thumb. Plaintiff brought a suit against the sanctuary based on claims of strict liability; under a statute and common law; negligence; and gross negligence. In affirming the lower court's decision, the appellate court found an enforceable contract existed with the waiver, and that there was no evidence of reckless disregard on defendant's part to rise to the level of gross negligence.

Pruett v. Arizona , 606 F.Supp.2d 1065 (D.Ariz.,2009). A diabetic woman in Arizona attempted to keep a chimpanzee as an assistance animal in spite of the state’s ape ban. It is generally illegal to keep chimpanzees and all other “restricted” apes without a license from the Game and Fish Department (GFD). Despite the state’s ban, the diabetic woman imported a chimpanzee with the intention of keeping him as a service animal. The District Court found that the plaintiff’s chimpanzee is “unnecessary” and “inadequate” to meet her disability-related needs and the animal is not a “reasonable” accommodation under the ADA because he threatens the health and safety of the community.

In Defense of Animals v. National Institutes of Health , 543 F.Supp.2d 70 (D.C.C., 2008). This FOIA case was brought against the National Institutes of Health ("NIH") by In Defense of Animals (“IDA”) seeking information related to approximately 260 chimpanzees located as the Alamogordo Primate Facility (“APF”) in New Mexico. Before the court now is NIH's Motion for Partial Reconsideration as to the release of records. This Court rejected NIH’s arguments that the records are not “agency records” because they belong to NIH's contractor, Charles River Laboratories, Inc. (“CRL”), a publicly held animal research company. Also, the Court was equally unconvinced that the information requested here is “essentially a blueprint of the APF facility,” and that release of such information presents a security risk to the facility.   

Baugh v. Beatty, 205 P.2d 671 (Cal.App.2.Dist.,1949) . This California case is a personal injury action by Dennis Ray Baugh, a minor, by John R. Baugh, his guardian ad litem, against Clyde Beatty and others, resulting from injuries suffered by the 4-year old child after he was bitten by a chimpanzee in a circus animal tent. The court found that there was no prejudicial error in the lower court refusing an instruction on negligence. With regard to the attractive nuisance doctrine, the court held that the instruction refers to the keeping of an “artificial and dangerous contrivance," and an animal in a cage is not artificial and it does not fall within the definition of the word “contrivance."

Related laws

CHIMP Act ( Chimpanzee Health Improvement Maintenance and Protection Act)

The U.S. Endangered Species Act

The Animal Welfare Act

Table of Laws Dealing with Great Apes


Related Links

Web Center Links:

Topic Page for the U.S. Endangered Species Act 

Topic Page for the Animal Welfare Act 

Topic Page for Laws Affecting Zoos 

Non-Web Center Resources:

The Jane Goodall Institute - founded by renowned primatologist, Jane Goodall, this non-profit organization empowers people to make a difference for all living things.  Contains a special section dedicated to chimpanzee research and information.


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