U.S. House votes to stop interstate chimp trade

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Prompted by the mauling of a Connecticut woman last week by a pet chimpanzee, the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to ban interstate trade of apes and monkeys.

By a vote of 323-95, the House approved the legislation that aims to cut off easy access to the animals, which are sought for household companions.

“Images of ‘Curious George’ and ‘Koko’ may lead us to believe that these creatures are cuddly and harmless,” said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, referring to the famous children’s book chimpanzee and gorilla who learned sign language.

“But last week’s tragedy and other similar attacks stand as evidence that this is not the case -- that they are in fact wild animals and they simply must not be kept as pets,” Rahall said.

Last Tuesday, a 200-pound (90-kg) chimpanzee that had once starred in television commercials attacked and severely injured 55-year-old Charla Nash in Stamford, Connecticut, a suburb of New York City.

The 15-year-old animal was shot dead by police after it also attacked a police car.

The House overwhelmingly passed similar legislation last year, only to see it die in the Senate. But backers now hope that the Senate will provide its needed concurrence to make the bill law.

The bill would prohibit interstate sale or purchase of monkeys and apes, which include chimpanzees and orangutans, as well as marmosets and lemurs. It would have no impact on the use of primates by zoos or researchers or physically disabled people who own trained chimps.

Violations would carry stiff fines and prison terms of up to five years.

“The intent is to dry up that market” for primate pets, said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States.

According to his organization, over the past four years there were more than 40 incidents involving primates escaping and injuring humans.

Rahall’s committee has estimated that about 15,000 primates are privately owned and lawmakers said adult animals can be a safety risk. As they grow older, they “inevitably grow more assertive and can become aggressive when frustrated or frightened,” according to a committee report.

Opponents of the legislation said there was little evidence primates are a health risk and say federal intervention is unnecessary as many states have their own controls in place. They also note that dog attacks send nearly 300,000 people to hospital emergency rooms annually, far more than primate attacks.

The bill is aimed at domestic breeders of primates as foreign imports of the animals were banned in 1975.

Editing by Cynthia Osterman