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Federal agency proposes increasing protection for captive chimpanzees

Thirty-year-old Rosie, one of the chimps at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio, was born in a lab and has spent most of her life as a research subject.
Thirty-year-old Rosie, one of the chimps at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio, was born in a lab and has spent most of her life as a research subject.NBC News file

The federal government has proposed listing captive chimpanzees as endangered, which would increase protections for the animals, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  

Wild chimpanzees have been listed as endangered since 1990, but captive chimps are currently listed as threatened, a designation that carries fewer protections. The proposed rule came about after officials determined that the Endangered Species Act doesn't allow for wild and captive animals to have separate legal statuses, agency director Dan Ashe said during a Tuesday teleconference.

The Fish and Wildlife Service also found that threats to chimpanzees have increased due to habitat loss, poaching and disease in the last 20 years, Ashe said. [Image Gallery: Amazing Photos of Chimp Faces]

"Finally this day has come," said British primatologist and legendary scientist Jane Goodall. "I think it shows there has been an awakening" about the plight of the chimpanzee, she added, during the teleconference.

The proposed rule would have implications for privately held chimpanzees and those used in animal testing. Any type of research involving chimpanzees would require a permit, Ashe said. It would also restrict and require permits for the import, export and trade of the animals, he added.

"Chimpanzees are in trouble, in the wild and in captivity, and this elevation in their protected status is a critical tool in saving them and in assuring that our children grow up in a world where chimps still live in their native habitats," said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, in a statement.

About 2,000 captive chimps currently reside in the United States, Goodall said.

This change would not automatically impact the use of chimpanzees in the entertainment industry, although that is "something we're interested in learning more about," Ashe said.

In 2010, the Fish and Wildlife Service received a legal petition from a variety of organizations, including the Jane Goodall Institute, to list all chimps as endangered, which led to a formal review of the status of chimpanzees under the Endangered Species Act.

The newly proposed rule will be detailed in the Federal Register on Wednesday and will be open for public comment for 60 days. It will take approximately a year before the final rule is issued. 

Chimpanzees have "helped us understand there's no sharp line between us and the other animals with which we share the planet," Goodall said.

Update from NBC News for 8:50 p.m. ET: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, issued a statement hailing the Fish and Wildlife Services' decision. "If, as PETA urges and the ESA [Endangered Species Act] requires, the proposed rule is adopted and properly enforced, Hollywood would be forced to stop using chimpanzees — who are torn away from their mothers as babies and beaten into 'performing' — in television, ads and movies," PETA said in the statement. "Laboratories would also be forced to stop using chimpanzees in invasive, painful, and lethal experiments — a recommendation that the National Institutes of Health has already made. And the FWS' decision will impact at least one other species: The government now has no justification for denying PETA's petition to include Lolita, the sole captive orca at the Miami Seaquarium, in the ESA's listing of Southern Resident orcas."

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