(CN) – Flouting international law, the United States gave researchers permission to send eight endangered chimpanzees to an unaccredited British zoo, animal activists claim in a federal complaint.
Six wildlife groups from the U.S., U.K. and Canada led by the New England Anti-Vivisection Society brought the federal complaint Monday in Washington to save the chimps.
They are joined as plaintiffs by two women who served as caregivers for some of the primates at the Yerkes National Primate Center in Atlanta. All of the chimps share the same grandparents.
Yekes, a research laboratory affiliated with Emory University, decided to “dispose” of its chimps, according to the complaint, after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in June 2015 that captive chimps would join their wild counterparts on the endangered species list.
FWS director Dan Ash explained at the time that the 1976 decision to split-list the chimps had been a “mistake,” the environmentalists note.
For Yerkes, this new rule meant that the researchers would now need a permit under the Endangered Species Act to continue working with its chimps, according to the complaint.
The environmentalists say Yerkes instead decided to send eight of its chimpanzees to Wingham Wildlife Park, an unaccredited zoo in Kent, England, though others from the lab are going to a sanctuary and an accredited zoo in the United States.
Abby, Agatha, Faye, Tara, Elvira, Georgia, Lucas and Fritz are the names of the Britain-bound beasts.
In addition to lacking accreditation, however, Wingham has also never housed, cared for or exhibited chimpanzees, according to the complaint.
In its application to transfer the chimps, Yerkes told FWS that the move would “enhance the propagation and survival” of the species because inbreeding would be avoided; that the chimps would be displayed in a way that would educate the public about conservation, and that both Yerkes and Wingham would make donations for chimp-conservation efforts.
The environmentalist plaintiffs counter that the “unprecedented” move violates the National Environmental Policy Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna.
“The FWS also violated its obligation to consider the adverse effects of its decision on efforts to conserve chimpanzees in the wild, even though Wingham clearly intends to breed the eight chimpanzees to create infant chimpanzees, which, in turn, will serve to fuel a desire for infant chimps, and thus the already devastating black market in infant chimpanzees taken from the wild for the pet and entertainment industries,” the complaint states.
Yerkes spokeswoman Lisa Newbern noted in an email that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is planning to reopen the comment period in relation to exporting the eight chimpanzees.
“We will cooperate fully with the USFWS requests of us during this process,” Newbern said. “We remain committed to donating the eight chimpanzees to the Wingham Wildlife Park, which has completed construction of a 12,700-square-foot, indoor/outdoor facility to house these animals.
Wingham’s animal collection curator Markus Wilder said the delay “does not affect our commitment to giving these eight chimpanzees a beautiful and comfortable home for life in the British countryside.”
The plaintiffs note that several accredited chimpanzee sanctuaries in the United States are willing to provide homes for the octet of chimps.
The New England Anti-Vivisection Society in particular notes that shipping the chimps overseas will cause it “to spend additional resources monitoring what happens to those animals and their progeny.”
Yerkes biologist Jennifer Feuerstein, one of the caregiver plaintiffs who joined the complaint, says she worked with Abby Georgia and Tara from 1997 to 2003.
“She thinks about these chimpanzees often and misses them terribly,” the lawsuit states. “She very much wants to visit them again to enjoy their company, which she would be able to do if the chimpanzees were relocated to a U.S. sanctuary.”
The complaint also quotes chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall’s remark in 2010 that the “exploitation of captive chimpanzees … can increase the demand for pet chimpanzees in parts of the world where such demand would be met by capturing wild chimpanzees, providing a financial incentive for local people to hunt chimpanzees for the live animal trade.”
The other plaintiffs are Primate Rescue Center of Kentucky, Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary in Florida, London-based Cruelty Free International, Chimps Inc. of Oregon and the Quebec-based Fauna Foundation.
The other Yerkes caregiver plaintiff is Terri Hunnicutt. Mary Lee Jensvold, the former director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute at Central Washington University, joined as individual plaintiff as well.
They are represented by Eric Glitzenstein with Meyer & Glitzenstein.
FWS director Ashe is named as a defendant, as is Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. Neither Yerkes nor Wingham are parties to the action.
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