January 07, 2016 Articles

Protecting Chimpanzees Through Pro Bono Work

This important work allows lawyers to solve complex legal problems while protecting and rescuing chimpanzees from a lifetime of exploitation and imprisonment.

By Katelyn E. Keegan

Pro bono work offers substantial opportunities to protect and improve animal lives through the law. While a majority of the pro bono work done on behalf of animals is litigation-based, the Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest (CSNW), in Cle Elum, Washington, illustrates the multifaceted, multi-practice legal needs of animal rights organizations. Founded in 2003, CSNW is only one of a few sanctuaries in the country that provides permanent lifetime care for chimpanzees. Pro bono work has played an important role in the long-term health and welfare of CSNW’s residents.

Chimpanzees are our closest living “relatives.” Human and chimpanzee genetic makeup is roughly 99 percent the same, and chimpanzees in captivity can live almost 60 years. That 1 percent difference in DNA, however, has meant that humans have used chimpanzees in a variety of ways for years—as unwilling subjects of decades of invasive biomedical experimentation and behavioral research; as physically and psychologically abused “actors” in film, television, and public exhibitions; and even as pets. But it is a scientific certainty that chimpanzees are highly intelligent animals that experience the same range of emotions as we do and that they suffer from the same kinds of stresses that we do. In the case of captive chimpanzees, some of the worst stresses come from years of confinement in small cages without proper care or mental stimulation. Until September of 2015, the United States was one of two countries in the world that permitted the biomedical industry to use chimpanzees for research, and roughly 600 chimpanzees remain housed in the research facilities where they have been subjected to medical testing.

Attorneys providing pro bono legal assistance have played a crucial role in the development of the CSNW since before the “Cle Elum Seven” came to the sanctuary. Transactional attorneys assisted with aspects of CSNW’s status as a 501(c)(3) corporation under the Internal Revenue Code, as well as the merger between CSNW and another sanctuary organization. Real estate attorneys worked with CSNW on aspects of the sanctuary management related to the lease and purchase of CSNW’s 26-acre property in the Cascade Mountains. CSNW has also needed ongoing legal consultation on a number of matters, including CSNW’s active advocacy program, which seeks to educate the public about issues related to wild and captive chimpanzees, and to prevent the exploitation of chimpanzees in entertainment and private ownership. In their most important contribution of all, attorneys negotiated the rescue of CSNW’s seven chimpanzee residents from a private biomedical facility in Pennsylvania in 2008.

The chimpanzees that attorneys have supported at CSNW—Jamie, Jody, Burrito, Annie, Missy, and Negra—are all in their third or fourth decade of life. Some of the seven were used in entertainment when they were young, and others were captured in Africa as babies. Once they were captured or discarded by the entertainment industry, they were then subjected to decades of biomedical research—infected, injected, tested, and biopsied, mainly in research related to hepatitis. And although we know that chimpanzees form strong and close relationships with their infants and young akin to those that we form, most of CSNW’s female chimpanzees were also used as “breeders,” and their babies were ripped away from them shortly after birth for use in research.

Because of the collaborative and diverse legal services provided to CSNW, these chimpanzees are now guaranteed to live out their lives receiving the best care in the country. Their caregivers at the sanctuary prepare homemade, and often home-cooked, meals to the chimpanzees three times a day and provide constant activities and enrichment materials, and the Cle Elum Seven have room to roam, climb, run, and play, or just relax in comfort. The chimpanzees are able to make choices for themselves and socialize with one another. They are able to play and enjoy life without fear of ever returning to tiny barren cages, to the abuse of the entertainment industry, or to the stresses of the laboratory. In 2011, CSNW released the chimpanzees onto a two-acre open-air habitat. This habitat is the largest area that some of the chimpanzees have ever experienced, and it is the first time some of them have felt grass under their feet and had an unobscured view of the sky above them.

Attorneys continue to advise CSNW on legal issues including contract law, business negotiations, regulatory compliance, human resources issues, and CSNW’s active advocacy component. This important work allows lawyers to solve complex legal problems while protecting and rescuing chimpanzees from a lifetime of exploitation and imprisonment. With hundreds of prior research chimpanzees waiting for sanctuary, CSNW’s work—and possible expansion—is now more important than ever. CSNW is merely one example of the fulfilling opportunities available through pro bono work on behalf of animals. There are endless opportunities for using the law to create positive change for other creatures in the animal kingdom.

Katelyn E. Keegan is an associate at Schiff Hardin in San Francisco, California.