The image of chimpanzees as curious mischief-makers is as familiar to American culture as the wily fox or the wise old owl. While from an early age we learn the anthropomorphic characteristics attributed to chimps (or, those human qualities associated with animals), most people’s understanding of the actual nature of life as a chimpanzee is extremely limited.
Chimpanzees are in danger of extinction in the wild. Their populations have been decimated by hunting and poaching associated with the bushmeat trade in African countries—adult chimpanzees are slaughtered for sale as food and the babies are taken to be sold as pets. Further complicating the problem is the loss of habitat that threatens many species around the world—this is also a serious concern but does not do as much immediate and large-scale damage as the bushmeat trade. Regulations under the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species are meant to protect wild chimps, but have not done much to protect the species.
In the United States, chimpanzees are bred for use in research and entertainment. They are covered under federal laws like the Animal Welfare Act and the Endangered Species Act have been enacted to protect animal welfare, but the gaps in protection are wide, especially when it comes to chimpanzees. Notably, the ESA does not apply to the chimpanzees bred in the United States, and the AWA allows exceptions for exhibitors, dealers and researchers.
It is clear that chimpanzees are in a dire predicament—international laws are insufficient to help recover wild chimpanzee populations, and federal laws leave so many holes that chimpanzees in the U.S. are barely protected at all. Any hope for recovering wild populations and alleviating the suffering of chimpanzees used in medicine and entertainment depends fully on re-evaluating and changing the above-mentioned laws so that chimpanzee welfare is the primary concern. This, in turn, can best be accomplished by changing public perception of chimpanzees from curious mischief-makers to sentient beings that are fully capable of joy, grief and fear—and thus fully entitled to legal protection.