In a move that's probably long overdue, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced last week that it will conduct a status review to determine if captive chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) should be reclassified from "threatened" to the more protected status "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Wild-born chimpanzees have been fully protected under the ESA since they were classified as "endangered" in 1990, but chimps and other great apes in captivity have not enjoyed the same protection under what is known as the "captive-bred wildlife exception." According to the Michigan State University College of Law's Animal Legal & Historical Center, this means "people who register with FWS can legally export, re-import, sell and 'take' (including euthanize) their captive-bred apes as long as those activities enhance the survival of the species." Those activities include scientific research, exhibition (this applies to show-biz chimpanzees) or "holding and maintenance of 'surplus' apes (meaning those not immediately needed for scientific research or breeding)." The "threatened" designation also means that people can import, export or sell great apes with an FWS permit (pdf).

The FWS status review is a response to a petition from The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Jane Goodall Institute, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance, the Fund for Animals, Humane Society International and the New England Anti-Vivisection Society.

"The federal government does not 'split list' any other endangered species by wild and captive populations, and it should not have done so in this case," HSUS president and CEO Wayne Pacelle said in a prepared statement. "The current split listing allows these highly intelligent and social creatures to be used as living props in silly commercials and stunts, as exotic pets and as test subjects in invasive animal experimentation, even though most chimps have very little scientific value in these protocols and they cost an enormous amount to keep in laboratories."

Of course, chimpanzees have had a role in medical research—including the development of vaccines for hepatitis A and B—but their use in medical experimentation in the U.S. is already being debated by the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine in Washington, D.C. There are nearly 1,000 medical research chimpanzees in the U.S., according to The Washington Post. The U.S., along with Gabon in Africa, are currently the only countries using chimpanzees in medical research.

The move for greater protection also has some support in Congress: Five months ago Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R–Md.) introduced the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act of 2011, which would prohibit invasive research on great apes and forbid the use of federal funds in support of medical research on apes. (The bill has gone no further since its April 13 introduction.)

Even though chimpanzees are endangered in the wild, with extinction predicted in as few as 10 to 50 years, the public is not generally aware of the species's plight. A study published July 13 in PLoS One found that the use of chimpanzees in entertainment media such as movies, commercials and greeting cards has diminished the public's perception that the species is endangered. (Of course, this was before the recently released Rise of the Planet of the Apes movie, which didn't even use real apes.) According to a report from Science, about 260 chimpanzees are employed by the entertainment industry.

This move by FWS is just the first step in a process to gather information. The public can now submit their comments on this proposed reclassification at (search for keyword FWS–R9–ES–2010–0086). Comments are due October 31.

As for what would happen if chimpanzees are reclassified, it's too early to tell. "At this point, we don't surmise what could change," FWS spokesperson Vanessa Kauffman told Science.

Photo: Chimpanzee at Los Angeles Zoo by Aaron Logan via Wikipedia. Used under Creative Commons license