Controversial Plan Would Send Lab Chimps to Unaccredited Zoo

Critics of the transfer say the move will be detrimental to these chimps, won’t contribute to conservation, and could set a dangerous precedent for the Endangered Species Act.

A U.S. research center’s plan to ship seven lab chimpanzees to an unaccredited zoo in England is facing a legal challenge that tests the limits of the Endangered Species Act and raises questions about how research animals should be treated when they are retired.

At the center of the dispute are seven chimps named Lucas, Fritz, Agatha, Tara, Faye, Elvira, and Georgia. They have lived at Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia, where scientists conducted research on them in the fields of developmental and cognitive neuroscience. But last year, lab chimps were granted the full protections of the Endangered Species Act, which meant that unless the research they were a part of was going to help their species survive, they couldn’t be lab subjects anymore. All of Yerkes’ 57 chimpanzees needed new homes.

The Endangered Species Act requires that any export of any listed animal benefit the survival of that species. But the England zoo that Yerkes has designated as the new home for the seven chimps mentioned in the lawsuit, Wingham Wildlife Park, is a for-profit, unaccredited facility that has not housed chimpanzees before. In an effort to meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act and allow the chimps to be moved to Wingham, the zoo and Yerkes decided to make a donation to a charity that would promote chimpanzee conservation. Conservationists who are questioning the arrangement say it violates the intention of the law.

On April 25, the New England Anti-Vivisection Society (NEAVS), a Boston-based animal rights organization, filed a lawsuit to stop the transfer for good. The export is now on hold as the lawsuit goes forward.

The suit provides a glimpse into how the United States Fish and Wildlife Service interprets one of the country’s most important wildlife protection laws. NEAVS argues that by allowing a U.S. organization to make a donation to secure export permission, the Fish and Wildlife Service is allowing permits to be bought and sold.

The stakes are high: This is the first chimp-export permit request since research chimpanzees gained new protections last June, and it’s also the first time the Fish and Wildlife Service has faced a legal challenge for allowing donations to satisfy the legal requirement that an export should benefit a species as a whole.

“If this permit is allowed to go through, it blasts a hole in the Endangered Species Act,” says Theodora Capaldo, CEO of NEAVS. “It says we can sacrifice individuals of the species under the guise of purported benefits to their free-living relatives.”

Tim Van Norman, who oversees import and export permitting at the Fish and Wildlife Service, disagrees that this permit would set a precedent: “We look at each application on its own merits,” he said.

When Wingham and Yerkes first offered a donation to the Kibale Snare Removal Program, “I was delighted,” program director and chimpanzee expert Richard Wrangham wrote in a blog post. Part of the respected Kibale Chimpanzee Project, the snare removal program works to combat illegal activity in Uganda’s Kibale National Park.

“[Then] we learned that the donation was secretly designed to satisfy the provisions of the [Endangered Species Act].”

He declined the offer.

“The fact that they hadn’t told us suggested they felt embarrassed about it, that they knew it wasn’t really right,” Wrangham told National Geographic. “The second thing was just the facts of it—it definitely seemed to be in contravention of the spirit of the Endangered Species Act.”

Wingham and Yerkes also offered a donation to the U.N. Great Apes Survival Partnership, an international alliance of conservation groups, governments, private businesses, research institutions, and United Nations agencies. That group declined too. So did the Wildlife Conservation Society, a New York-based nonprofit that runs several gorilla and monkey protection programs in Africa and several other organizations.

Yerkes, with the help of the Fish and Wildlife Service, eventually made contact with the Population and Sustainability Network, a United Kingdom-based nonprofit that focuses on human reproductive rights to support sustainable development. The group has little experience with wildlife, but it plans to use the donation to set up a program that would benefit chimps.

That satisfied the Fish and Wildlife Service, and in April the Fish and Wildlife Service granted Yerkes a permit to send seven (one of the eight had died) lab chimps to Wingham Wildlife Park for public exhibition.

Although the world’s foremost chimp advocate, Jane Goodall, has endorsed the move, dozens of chimpanzee experts, conservationists, zoo organizations, wildlife sanctuaries, and others in the wildlife field oppose the transfer.

On May 24 the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia heard NEAVS’s arguments to block the transfer until the full lawsuit can go forward. Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson showed skepticism over the government’s reasons for issuing the export permit, questioning how this donation in particular would benefit the species as a whole and, more broadly, how any donation satisfies Endangered Species Act requirements.

“It seems to me you have a couple of problems,” Judge Brown Jackson told the lawyer for the Fish and Wildlife Service. She continued: "Does the law say the action itself—in this case, the export—has to enhance the survival of the species? Or is the action acceptable so long as it’s associated with activities that enhance the survival of the species?"

NEAVS argues that it’s the former; the Fish and Wildlife Service, the latter.

At the end of hearing, before the judge had a chance to rule on whether to halt the export, Yerkes agreed not to export the chimpanzees until both sides can present their full arguments and more supporting evidence. Judge Brown Jackson will issue a ruling in September.

Even if the judge upholds the Fish and Wildlife Service’s interpretation of the Endangered Species Act, questions remain about whether this particular donation to the Population and Sustainability Network will help chimpanzees as a whole.

David Johnson, the CEO of the organization, says the program will focus on human sexual and reproductive health, as well as sanitation, in a to-be-determined area of Uganda where communities live in close proximity to chimps.

Johnson says family planning to help reduce unintended pregnancies benefits both humans and chimpanzees, who live in parks that face encroachment from nearby rural villages. Chimpanzees and humans alike, Johnson points out, also face diseases that can be prevented with better sanitation, which is why the other component of the program will provide training and education on sanitation.

“We have a 21st-century approach to conserving species whilst also working with the local community, not excluding them,” says Johnson. By integrating family planning and conservation, he says there are more opportunities to discuss chimpanzee protection and earn the community’s support for it.

Nonetheless, the Population and Sustainability Network’s plan was questioned by the judge and criticized by opponents of the transfer for being vague and too far removed from direct chimpanzee protection. For example, NEAVS says, it hasn’t yet been decided who will run the program or where it will be. (Johnson says they have a location and project leader in mind, but they aren’t ready to announce it publicly yet.)

If the project turns out to be a failure, the U.S. government has no recourse—at that point, the chimps will be in the UK and out of the U.S. government’s jurisdiction.

Conservationists who oppose the transfer say that a zoo isn’t in the chimps’ best interest and that a sanctuary would provide a more suitable home. Although lab chimps can never be released into the wild, a sanctuary provides the next closest thing—ample space in a natural setting. At least four sanctuaries have now come forward saying they’re willing to accept the seven Yerkes chimps.

Zoos, on the other hand, can be stressful for chimpanzees, who have high cognitive function and don’t adapt well to seeing many unfamiliar faces, according to research. One 2011 study, for example, documented abnormal behavior in zoo chimps indicative of mental health problems. For former lab chimps, the problem is even more acute.

Lab chimps are removed from their mothers years before they would naturally separate, says Erika Fleury at the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance, a coalition of eight sanctuaries, which opposes the transfer.

“Chimpanzees are naturally social animals, and when they’re are not granted a normal infancy and childhood, they suffer socially due to never being exposed to species specific chimpanzee behaviors,” she says. “This means they often do not know how to breed, care for their young, make nests, and climb trees.”

Wingham Wildlife Park is not accredited, meaning it’s not subject to oversight from any trade organization to ensure that it meets industry standards. For this reason, among others, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in the U.S. opposes the transfer. The European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) and the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) also oppose the transfer on the grounds that Europe already has too many hybridized chimpanzees. Wingham holds a government-issued zoo license, which ensures that it meets the minimum legal requirements; however, BIAZA requires its members to go beyond those basic obligations.

Although Wingham has never taken care of chimps before, Markus Wilder, the zoo’s curator, said that they’ve been preparing for the transfer since discussions with Yerkes began three years ago. He says the head zookeeper has made trips to two different institutions, including Yerkes, to learn about chimp care, and that the head veterinarian has experience caring for great apes.

“We have also increased the total number of our animal care staff and extensively trained them in the care of chimpanzees so they can assist whenever needed,” Wilder said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s Van Norman said he and his team “looked at whether Wingham has the expertise and facilities to care for the animals. While the plaintiffs say they don’t, we disagree.”

Jane Goodall, who supports the transfer, visited the zoo and said in a public comment that the staff are well qualified and the enclosure is “wonderful.” The Jane Goodall Institute declined to comment to National Geographic on why Goodall believes the transfer will benefit the species as a whole.

One thing still isn’t clear: why Yerkes insists on exporting the chimps to Wingham.

Wrangham summarized: “The whole thing is completely crazy. It’d be easier for Yerkes to give [the chimps] to somewhere else in the States. It’d be easier for Wingham to get them from Europe. Then we’d have an intact Endangered Species Act and Fish and Wildlife Service we could respect.”

For its part, Yerkes says it simply wants to fulfill an agreement: Back in 2013, Wingham, which had been following ongoing discussions in the U.S. about listing chimps as endangered, approached Yerkes about taking some of its chimps. Yerkes was already thinking about retiring some of its chimps, said spokeswoman Lisa Newman. In 2014, they reached an agreement.

“Today, we want to honor that commitment because we still believe [Wingham Wildlife Park] can offer the selected chimpanzees the best home,” Newman said.

This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to

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