NEAVS et al. Sue U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The Rise for Animals Team, November 30, 2015

We, NEAVS, a Boston-based, international animal advocacy organization, and our coalition of chimpanzee experts and sanctuaries, filed a lawsuit today against U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) challenging the agency’s decision to issue a permit to Yerkes National Primate Research Center (Yerkes), Atlanta, GA, to “donate” eight chimpanzees—Lucas, Fritz, Abby, Agatha, Tara, Faye, Elvira, and Georgia—to Wingham Wildlife Park (Wingham), an unaccredited U.K. zoo. The FWS informed NEAVS of its decision late afternoon November 27, 2015, the day after Thanksgiving, that it intends to issue the permit allowing the export of the chimpanzees as early as Monday, December 7, 2015.

Because captive chimpanzees were officially listed as “endangered” on September 14, 2015 under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), Yerkes may not export them without demonstrating the export will “enhance the propagation or survival of the species.” The complaint filed today challenges the permit decision as violating the ESA, the Convention on International Trade in Flora and Fauna (CITES), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the Administrative Procedure Act, and asserts the decision is adverse to the well-being of the chimpanzees, their progeny, and carries serious implications for all U.S. captive chimpanzees.

The Plaintiffs assert Yerkes’ application contained “incorrect and misleading representations and fails to disclose other information” – material to FWS’ decision, which in itself warrants denial – including representations that Wingham would only breed the chimpanzees in cooperation with the European Species Survival Program (EEP), and that in exchange for the permit Yerkes and Wingham would make donations to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Kibale Chimpanzee Project (Kibale) in Africa. As the Plaintiffs were able to demonstrate, Wingham is not a member of the EEP, the EEP does not want these chimpanzees to be included in its program, and the EEP actually opposes the export.  Plaintiffs demonstrated that both WCS and Kibale had not agreed to accept funding in connection with this permit and both oppose the transfer of the chimpanzees to Wingham.

Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act demonstrate that in response to this evidence, instead of denying the permit, as required by the agency’s own regulations, the FWS instead arranged for Yerkes to donate money to another group—the Population & Sustainability Network—specializing in educating women about reproductive health and rights and has no experience in conserving chimpanzees. FWS’s decision to arrange for this donation without disclosing this fact during the public comment period for Yerkes’ permit application violates the requirements of the ESA that all such information be made “available to the public” for comment.

The Plaintiffs also assert that exporting captive chimpanzees to a facility with no experience or expertise in the care of chimpanzees, where the chimpanzees will be subjected to the stress of being on exhibit for a claimed 200,000 visitors a year, is again subjugating captive chimpanzees to a lesser level of protection than their wild counterparts.

Theodora Capaldo, Ed.D., NEAVS’ president says, “When he announced in June of this year that captive chimpanzees would finally be considered “endangered” under the ESA, FWS Director Ashe admitted it was a ‘mistake’ to have not afforded captive chimpanzees full protections as an endangered species for the past decades. Yet, he is about to add salt to the wounds of captive U.S. chimpanzees from that mistake by now allowing them to be used as pawns to provide a zoo with an extremely lucrative exhibit. FWS is setting a dangerous precedent: if you can find someone willing to accept your money, you can ship your captive chimps anywhere—including to unaccredited facilities worldwide.”

NEAVS, et al., (including former Yerkes’ caregivers Jen Feuerstein and Terri Hunnicutt; sanctuaries: Primate Rescue Center, Fauna Foundation, Jungle Friends, CHIMPS, Inc.; Cruelty Free International, U.K.; and chimpanzee expert Marylee Jensvold, Ph.D.,) posted comments strongly opposing the proposed export and advocating the eight chimpanzees instead be relocated to one of several U.S. chimpanzee sanctuaries. Public comments in opposition to the export are estimated to exceed 27,000, and include opposition from other chimpanzee experts, the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums, U.S. Species Survival Plan, The Humane Society of the United States, European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, former chimpanzee laboratory veterinarians including the former president of Chimp Haven, the International Primatological Society, Prof. Tetsuro Matsuzawa, the Center for Great Apes, and world renown chimpanzee expert, Richard Wrangham, PhD.

April Truitt, founder of the Primate Rescue Center adds, “There are many chimpanzees within the EU in need of placement—and no need to ship chimpanzees overseas rather than allowing them to live in a U.S. sanctuary where they will receive the highest care, ESA protections, and not be further exploited.”

Plaintiffs note Wingham clearly intends to breed the chimpanzees. Because the EEP has made clear its opposition to the export, any such progeny could end up on display or otherwise commercially exploited.  In declarations filed in support of up-listing captive chimpanzees to “endangered,” chimpanzee experts uniformly agreed commercial exploitation of infant captive chimps fuels the black market in infants captured from the wild. However, once Yerkes exports the chimpanzees to the U.K., the U.S. government loses jurisdiction over them and their progeny.

The Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are being represented by the Washington, D.C. public interest firm Meyer, Glitzenstein & Eubanks.