The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed adding captive chimpanzees to the endangered species list on Tuesday, which would severely limit how the animals could be used in medical research.
Although wild chimpanzees were added to the list in 1990, captive chimpanzees were not given the same protection. Adding captive chimpanzees would mean protecting another 1,884 animals in the U.S., including many currently being used in medical research.
If the animals are added to the endangered species list, laboratories will have to obtain a special permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to use the animals for any testing that could "harm or harass" the animal. The research would also have to be used to "enhance the survival of the species."
The National Institutes of Health, which has 451 chimpanzees, released a statement from director Dr. Francis Collins saying it would work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the proposal is finalized. "NIH policies for research projects using chimpanzees will be adapted to comply with the final conservation guidelines for captive chimpanzees," said Collins. The NIH said they believed that the "necessary biomedical research could be permitted through enhancement-of-survival permits."
In January a committee formed by NIH recommended suspending the use of chimpanzees in most biomedical research. At a press conference at the time, the group's co-chair, Dr. Daniel Geschwind, said there are "other animal models and other ways of doing the studies that might be more efficient, that wouldn't require the chimpanzees."
The proposal to add all chimpanzees to the endangered species list was adopted after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reviewed a petition submitted by the Humane Society of the United States, the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, and the Jane Goodall Institute, among others.
Kathleen Conlee, vice president for animal research issues for the Humane Society of the United States, said that the rule would help both wild and captive chimp populations. It's not only a matter of chimps being used in medical research, but in entertainment as well.
"The human perception is of chimps dressed up in clothing," Conlee told ABCNews.com. She said surveys have shown people do not realize chimpanzees are endangered as a result of seeing them used for comic relief in film and television shows.
Chimpanzees are found in the wild in 22 African countries, but increased deforestation, poaching and disease have continued to threaten the wild chimp population. If captive chimpanzees are protected under the endangered species list, permits would be needed to import or export the animal and for any activity that could "harm or harass" the animal.
"This is exceptional news for all chimpanzees and for all the petitioners, especially the Humane Society of the United States, who have worked so hard on this issue," said Dr. Jane Goodall, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, in the statement. "This decision gives me hope that we truly have begun to understand that our attitudes toward treatment of our closest living relatives must change."