Regulating the treatment of apes in captivity is both an ethical issue and an important aspect of conservation of apes in the wild. Thousands of wild apes are illegally captured each year, for pets, as performers in circuses and shows, and for exhibition in zoos. This contributes to the decline in wild populations and may also lessen public support for their conservation by creating a false impression of their abundance. (In fact, most captive apes outside ape-range states were born in captivity; only the very oldest are likely to have been captured in the wild.)
The conditions under which apes are kept vary widely, but every form of captivity presents some risk to their welfare, as broadly defined by the concept of the Five Freedoms: freedom from hunger and thirst; discomfort; pain, injury, and disease; fear and distress; and freedom to express normal patterns of behavior. By definition, even benign forms of captivity often involve some degree of maternal deprivation and social isolation.
Apes retired or rescued from captivity may be relocated to sanctuaries. Many of these are now at or approaching their capacity, in part because the capture and slaughter of adult apes has increased the number of orphans in the wild. Following a landmark policy shift in 2013, hundreds of chimpanzees now held in U.S. research facilities are due to be released to sanctuaries in the near future. Only in rare and expensive scenarios can previously captive apes be released into the wild, which is a risky and demanding process by any measure. The released ape must be free of disease that might infect the wild population, must have learned the skills needed to survive in the wild, and must be set free in an area with adequate, secure forest range to support it. Thus the fates of apes in the wild, in captivity, and in sanctuaries are intertwined, and their conservation will require a shared global ethos that values apes in their own right.