Yesterday, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia held a three-hour hearing on a motion for a preliminary injunction, filed May 9, against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) by the New England Anti-Vivisection Society (NEAVS) and its coalition of sanctuaries and chimpanzee experts, to stop Yerkes National Primate Research Center (Yerkes) from exporting eight (now seven) captive chimpanzees to an unaccredited zoo in the U.K., Wingham Wildlife Park (Wingham). The Yerkes' permit is the first of its kind since FWS's June 2015 decision giving captive chimpanzees full U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections.
During the hearing, attended by lawyers for NEAVS, the U.S. government, and Yerkes, Judge Jackson repeatedly expressed skepticism about FWS's position that the permit would "enhance the survival" of the chimpanzee species, as required by the ESA, because Yerkes and Wingham promised to make financial contributions to launch a new program regarding human health, the specifics of which are not even defined. The Judge questioned whether that arrangement satisfies the stringent test governing the export of an endangered species, when the export itself has nothing to do with conservation, and is being permitted to allow a commercial zoo to display chimpanzees for profit.
The case concerns the export of Agatha, Elvira, Faye, Fritz, Lucas, Tara and Georgia to Wingham, Kent, England. Now, Yerkes cannot move ahead with its transfer of the chimpanzees until the Court rules on the case. Although Yerkes originally told the Court it needed a decision on the motion by the end of May otherwise it would be "too hot" to transport the chimpanzees, at the end of the hearing, it agreed to halt the export until September to allow the Court the opportunity to look at the full record in the case before deciding the merits of NEAVS's claims.
Sadly, NEAVS and other Plaintiffs, including former Yerkes' employees, learned that one of the younger chimpanzees, Abby, who would have turned 21 on May 11, died in February "during a veterinary procedure" at Yerkes. This information was revealed in a footnote to Yerkes' brief in the case and was not mentioned by FWS despite several Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Requests NEAVS has filed since February to gain information about the export.
Reacting to Yerkes' surprising capitulation to halt the export, and allow the full case to go forward in the fall, Theodora Capaldo, NEAVS' CEO, stated, "It is clear that the Judge has serious questions about what has gone on here, and particularly the FWS's use of a 'pay-to-play' arrangement that would allow facilities to engage in unlawful activities with an endangered species as long as they pay someone money in the name of "conservation." She added, "It is becoming increasingly bizarre that Yerkes insists on sending these seven chimpanzees to Wingham when the world's leading chimpanzee experts have explained that this arrangement will set a dangerous precedent for the commercialization of an endangered species, and no less than five U.S. sanctuaries have come forward and offered to give these chimpanzees a new home. In fact, a sanctuary a mere 90 minutes from Yerkes' campus will welcome them."
While Wingham complains that if it can't get these chimpanzees, its new $2 million facility will remain "empty," it is aware, from both the European Endangered Species Programme and the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums, that there is a surplus of captive chimpanzees already in Europe in desperate need of new homes. Although Yerkes assured the Court that Wingham has no "present intentions" of breeding the seven chimpanzees, Wingham's reluctance to take a bachelor group fromEurope, and instead work hard to acquire the Yerkes' chimpanzees -- males and females of breedable ages -- casts serious doubt on such representations. It is also well established that having baby chimpanzees on display is a gold mine for zoos. Indeed, Yerkes did not dispute NEAVS's estimate -- included in court papers –Wingham stands to make at least $2.7 million more each year from exhibiting the Yerkes' chimps, and far more if it is successful in producing infants.
However, a recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warned that the consumer "market" for endangered apes, including chimpanzees, is driven by "private and public zoos that are not members of [zoo] associations" that "are known to exploit apes commercially by arranging photograph sessions and having the apes perform and other unethical actions" -- precisely the kind of commercial "Experiences" that Wingham offers with its existing species that has caused such alarm among the chimpanzee conservation community.
Among individuals who submitted comments to FWS vehemently opposing the proposed export are: Dr. Richard Wrangham, Professor, Harvard University and Founder, Kibale Chimpanzee Project; Dr. Richard Leakey, Chairman, Kenya Wildlife Service and United Nations Great Apes Survival Partnership Ambassador (GRASP); Doug Cress, Executive Director, GRASP: Michele L. Stumpe, Esq., Chair, Pan African Sanctuary Alliance; the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums; the British and Irish Association of Zoos & Aquariums; the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance; the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria; the European Endangered Species Programme; and, 27,000+ public comments posted on the Federal Register.
According to Dr. Wrangham, if the export is allowed to go through:
FWS's authorization [would] foreshadow an alarming picture. The Yerkes/Wingham plan [would] threaten to grievously wound a consensus that has protected endangered species from commercial exploitation. It [would] herald a vision of range countries having an easier route to take endangered species from the wild, under the guise of conservation…. Institutions worldwide could pay to acquire chimpanzees, an endangered species, in the name of "conservation."
In responding to yesterday's developments, Jen Feuerstein, one of the Plaintiffs who attended the hearing, expressed deep sadness at the news of the unexpected death of Abby, who Ms. Feuerstein had cared for as a young chimpanzee when she worked at Yerkes, and vowed to continue to, "be a voice for Abby and the other members of her social group" and to do everything in her power to ensure that these chimpanzees end up in a U.S. sanctuary, "where they can live out the remainder of their lives in peace and without being commercially exploited."
Briefs will be filed by all sides during the summer. Judge Jackson plans to issue a ruling at the beginning of September.
NEAVS et al. are represented by Katherine Meyer, of the Washington, D.C. public interest law firm, Meyer Glitzenstein & Eubanks LLP.
Nancy Finn, Director of Communications
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Read release on PRNewswire here.