The Great Ape Grab:
Seven Chimpanzees Go From Lab to Refuge … to Uncle Sam
The news reports paint a rosy picture of Chimp Haven, Inc. Chocolate lovers can buy a bar of Endangered Species Chocolate with a picture of a baby ape on the wrapper to support the company’s guaranteed donation of at least $25,000 to Chimp Haven, a place that almost everyone happily dubs a “naturalistic sanctuary in Louisiana.”
Chimp Haven is no sanctuary. Located near Shreveport , it serves as a holding site for the National Institutes of Health, whose only interest in chimpanzees is using them in tests. Donors who want to help chimpanzees are helping the NIH continue to afford experimenting on these beings.
In early December, a Shreveport Times reporter who had been given a tour of Chimp Haven objected to us: “None of the chimps have been sent back into service and are in fact only brought to Chimp Haven as the NIH deems them ready for retirement.” In reality Chimp Haven just began accepting chimpanzees in 2005, and the apes’ availability for national use is indeed why they’re put there rather than released from government ownership.
In the 1990s, The Coulston Foundation held the world’s largest captive chimpanzee colony. As Coulston developed financial troubles and an infamous reputation, the NIH grew reliant on access to a large, privately maintained population of chimpanzees. Permanent relinquishment of apes from labs to lifetime refuges, said the NIH, “would be poor stewardship of our federal investment.” So in late 1999, Representative James Greenwood (R-PA) introduced the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection (CHIMP) Act--bluntly calling it “our opportunity to continue to use these animals for research where it’s warranted.” Greenwood added: “We can do this, with a combination of public and private sources, at less cost.”
No wonder Dr. Michale Keeling, principal investigator at a 150-chimpanzee colony at the Texas’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, called the idea “a godsend”. Keeling (now deceased) joined the founding advisory board for Chimp Haven, t ogether with Patricia Forkan, senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, and Dr. Kathryn Bayne, who was associate director of the Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International, with expertise in biohazard containment. Also among the advisors was a “professional animal trainer,” and another person “with experience in chimpanzee training.” Chimp Haven’s chair, Dr. Linda Brent, had substantial experience working with chimpanzees in government lab settings.
Chimp Haven’s board members have one thing in common: They must conform to the specifications of the CHIMP Act, a law that supports research by getting private funds to maintain these apes when they’re deemed surplus to federal requirements.
Homeland Security Apes
“Chimp Haven,” according to the main page of its public website, “is a permanent home for chimpanzees providing lifetime care and attention.” And when members of the public write to Chimp Haven to ask whether the site’s eighty-some apes live in a true refuge or whether instead they belong to the labs upon request, public relations manager Rick DelaHaya answers, “Our chimpanzees are not placed back into research -- most are old or have illnesses/diseases which make them unfit for research (which is why they were sent here in the first place).”
DelaHaya says Chimp Haven’s main mission is the “welfare and care of these magnificent animals.” DelaHaya adds that it’s “all about giving the animals choices...something they never could have anticipated” and “the opportunity to go back to their ‘African roots’”. DelaHaya concedes that the controlling law “does have a provision that would allow research to be conducted given that multiple provisions are met,” but says “this is not likely ever to be done”.
In December 2006 the Boston Globe provided a dose of reality. “Lab Chimps, Uncle Sam May Want You,” exclaimed the Globe, describing how the office of Wyoming Senator Michael Enzi ensured that Congress will preserve NIH access to the apes at Chimp Haven, as “researchers might want to call back the retired chimpanzees to laboratories for homeland-security reasons.” The Globe explained that “the chimps might be needed to test how to protect humans from toxic agents” in the event of a bioterrorism attack. Indeed, that’s what Chimp Haven’s board understood might be asked of them when they signed up.
In 2000, Dr. Alfred Prince, whose vaccine research has received NIH funding, supported the holding site idea, telling Congress that “experiments are not that severe for chimps,” that the apes can adjust to labs as young humans adjust to Army service, and that keeping apes is “essential” for progress in this field.”
Under the law, existing rather than new sanctuaries were to be considered for funding first. But existing sanctuaries declined to get involved. In 2001, Sumner D. Matthes of the American Sanctuary Association wrote to Dr. Raymond R. O’Neill of the NIH, “As our ASA Policy Statement specifies that our sanctuaries accept responsibility for the ‘lifetime’ care and welfare of the animals, the provisions of Public Law 106-551 [the Chimp Act], as relates to the possible NIH removal of chimpanzees from the sanctuary system, are unacceptable to ASA.”
In fact, the government’s new system would benefit the NIH whether apes could be removed from it or not, for the NIH is freed from the duty of lifetime maintenance by inventing this storage concept, subsidized first by your tax dollars and yet again by the donations of people who are taken in by the PR.
The CHIMP Act is simply one of the most frightening pieces of legislation in the history of welfare-related law in the United States. It reflects the first serious attempt by the research community to regulate sanctuaries, diverting the public’s charitable support for cast-off animals into a bureaucracy controlled by experimenters’ priorities. Rather than pretend Chimp Haven is a sanctuary, Congress could have concentrated on improving traditional private sanctuaries. The public still can, and should.
Last October, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) pressed the Texas attorney general to authorize a raid on Primarily Primates, a private sanctuary near San Antonio. The ordeal resulted in horses, ponies, birds, and other animals being taken away from the refuge. In the middle of it was attorney Robert “Skip” Trimble, a board member of the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), holder of a PETA Activist Award, and the lawyer for the person to be installed on the premises as a government-appointed receiver. Since then, in the weirdest twist yet in CHIMP Act history, seven chimpanzees were rounded up and carted off from Primarily Primates to Chimp Haven. When the Chimp Haven staff showed up on Thursday, Nov. 16 with vans, the sanctuary didn’t even have time to contest it. By the next day, the seven chimpanzees were gone.
Supposedly authorizing this bodysnatching is an “Animal Transfer Agreement” that describes the move as “non-permanent”; yet the very same document also says: “If for any reason Chimp Haven is not able to provide lifetime care” under the federal Animal Welfare Act, the temporary receiver installed at Primarily Primates “reserves the right to find suitable alternative retirement accommodations” for these seven apes.
Anything in the “agreement” between Chimp Haven and the receiver can be modified, says the document, upon their further mutual agreement. In short, this piece of paper is a bad legal joke, hastily conjured up as an end run around an earlier contract between the private sanctuary and a university that sent these apes there. Numerous animal-advocacy groups have supported the receiver who did this -- either unaware of or deliberately ignoring the legal shenanigans involved.
Primarily Primates’ lawyer is demanding the return of the seven apes from Chimp Haven; yet Chimp Haven’s Internet home page flaunts the seven new arrivals on its website in large print: “Rescue Brings Seven Chimpanzees Home.”
The receiver knows the NIH requirements under which Chimp Haven operates. The receiver also knows Chimp Haven’s purpose seriously conflicts with the mission this private sanctuary . And it’s this mission -- the mission of a lifetime refuge, upheld by its donors for 28 years -- which the receiver is bound to protect. The receiver is buttressing public relations for Chimp Haven -- not for Primarily Primates, which has to compete with Chimp Haven for limited donor support.
Although the government pays most of its costs, Chimp Haven still must raise millions, and it's fallen short of its mark. Linda Brent, who heads Chimp Haven, told the Globe that fear that the apes will return to testing puts some donors off. So Chimp Haven doesn’t advertise the fact. But it’s naïve to think that any apes at Chimp Haven would be protected from research in a declared health emergency; and the seven apes from Primarily Primates (who have been used in cognition experiments -- not in toxicity or vaccine tests) could be deemed more useful than other apes who’ve been used extensively in disease research which could interfere with their reactions to newer tests.
Adding to the conflicts of interest, the receiver opened Primarily Primates’ doors to PETA’s staff and attorneys -- the group that brought a lawsuit over the idea of the Texas refuge having these chimpanzees in the first place. As one visitor to our Internet log asked: Who’s investigating the refuge -- the state’s attorney general, or PETA?
Immediately, the receiver and advocates set to work dismantling the sanctuary and erasing any traces of its positive accomplishments. Suddenly, Primarily Primates’ website became a forum to attack … Primarily Primates. Allegations against Primarily Primates have been repeated by the media, and recently echoed in a release on Chimp Haven’s website. Not surprisingly, the receiver has run into a problem with the money flow into Primarily Primates, and has made requests to start selling off part of the refuge land.
Friends of Animals, on the strength of an excellent track record since 1957, has offered to merge with this sanctuary in order to do right by its donors and ensure its future. Meanwhile, with the Texas attorney general’s permission, the sanctuary’s reputation is being ravaged in a campaign of hearsay, innuendos and Internet wars -- before a trial can take place to decide the issues on their merits. The conflict of interest in this situation is just as bad as it was several years ago, when a power struggle at Primarily Primates resulted in a suspension of a lawyer -- one connected, like Skip Trimble, with the Animal Legal Defense Fund -- over ethics violations.
Life…and Life in the Newspapers
The sprawling Texas refuge has grown substantially from its early days. In 1983, the chimpanzee Rudy moved in, followed by many more. Rudy is thriving to this day. “I've been visiting since the 80s,” says Timmi Morgan. “That is when I first met Abbie, the tiny little bald capuchin I fell in love with. Visiting again in 2006 and finding her still going strong is such a testament to Primarily Primates!”
Its rehabilitators accepted animals with the most harrowing of histories, leading the way for others to open their doors to animals in dire need. They faced financial setbacks after the tragedy of 2001, when donations to all but the most high-profile animal charities dwindled. Recent hurricanes have also strained funding. But the refuge carried on until 2006, when PETA got in the middle of the transfer of chimpanzees from the Ohio lab to the Texas refuge. Belying PETA’s brash criticism, in May 2006 the San Antonio Express-News article “Primates in the Courtroom: Sanctuary at Center of Fight” reported that Virginia Landau, an Arizona primatologist with the Goodall Institute, had unfettered access to the property and records on recent visits to Primarily Primates, and said, “The animals look good.”
PETA failed to get the contract voided, but its complaints about the Ohio State apes later prompted the Texas attorney general to file suit, in an Austin probate court. Why in Austin? Apparently, because that’s where it worked. In October, probate judge Guy Herman agreed to wrest control of Primarily Primates from its board of directors, and to install a receiver, whose activities have gone far beyond the norm of collecting records and sorting the books. Indeed, the chosen receiver was not an accountant, but an animal activist with no known financial skills.
Suddenly, the media coverage changed drastically -- particularly as the Texas reporting moved to the Austin Bureau of the Express-News . On Dec. 15, the Austin Chronicle dragged Primarily Primates through the thickest muck of all. In a piece called “Famous Long Ago” (a headline evidently meant to evoke Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row”), it employed as its theme the sad events in the life of one of the sanctuary’s elderly residents, once known as “Oliver the Humanzee.” The day after the inflammatory article appeared, east coast television revived the feature "Humanzee."
On Dec. 14, the Chronicle would later report, it “got word from Austin political consultant Mike Blizzard, who is providing pro bono public relations services” for the receiver, that “famed ‘Humanzee’ Oliver, the chimpanzee cover boy for our feature on the battle over animal welfare at [Primarily Primates], has moved into a new, larger enclosure at the 75-acre sanctuary.” What the Chronicle did not say is that the fully blind Oliver is more vulnerable to falls in large spaces, and more difficult to reach for necessary medications. But it seemed that the Chronicle was conveying information as filtered through the lens of a professional PR expert.
Less attention went to the many, many animals who have been sent away by the receiver to other sites, including a kill pound in Houston. We have called; we have written; at the tie of this writing, the Houston SPCA isn’t telling us the factual details regarding their fates. And numerous animals have died or become ill during the receiver’s watch, while the media focused on re-exhibiting the “Humanzee.”
Some people assume that anything’s acceptable where a state’s attorney general is involved. But are things so simple? For foes of the refuge, there are reputational interests at stake. There’s the former ALDF president, a n attorney from Boston who once represented Primarily Primates and fought for its founder’s reputation, but later turned on the refuge in an angry power struggle. For this serious violation of ethics, the attorney was disciplined through a six-month suspension in 2000 from the practice of law. But the damage to the refuge was done. During the power struggle, Primarily Primates was put into a receivership. This pattern continues to this day. To the extent that the refuge can be put in the worst possible light, its long-time detractors can present their officious and harmful meddling as justified.
Like the former ALDF president, PETA has long taken a hostile stance against the refuge. The group has spent a great deal of effort on seeking allies, hiring lawyers, and influencing the media to show justify its position against Primarily Primates at a time when PETA itself has been under media fire in connection with the killings of cats, dogs, kittens and puppies in a felony case in North Carolina. Far more media attention has gone to the Texas case than to North Carolina -- where PETA does not want attention.
The Year of the Sanctuary
Chimp Haven advertises itself as “ a destination for thousands… where families come together for fun and hands-on learning” while sponsored by, among others, a state office of tourism. Chimp Haven is a very public place. U.S. activists have widely supported this concept, even though both the British and New Zealand governments have already declared the unacceptability of treating non-human great apes as property.
As Chimp Haven enjoys the benefits of activist endorsements, a private refuge is treated as an evil. And much of what activists have claimed is wrong with the refuge has been choreographed by these same activists. Other, more general allegations don’t hold up. We know, because, like primatologist Virginia Landau, Friends of Animals took the time to tour the site before it was raided by its detractors. We have decided that, while it needs a good deal of help and support, Primarily Primates has a history that shouldn’t be wasted, and a future that should be ensured.
To that end, as we go to press, Primarily Primates is anticipating a jury trial in Texas. To support the refuge is to support a future for true sanctuaries, refusing to let the term “retirement” be defined by experimenters and PR experts. And that’s essential. That the CHIMP Act and its private contractor condone and perpetuate chimpanzee vivisection is an inconvenient truth. But avoidance translates into terrible decisions parading as activism, as advocacy groups increasingly view zoos and government institutes as appropriate for other animals, apes included. The apes need supporters with the fortitude to outspokenly value their interests in living free from human settings.
This is why it is so very important to have private sanctuaries, separate from institutions that carry out animal experiments. With your continued support, this will be the year of the sanctuary movement.
If you would like to support the legal project to defend Primarily Primates, your contribution will come at a critical time. Please send your gift to Friends of Animals, 777 Post Road, Darien, Connecticut 06820, with a notation that it’s for sanctuary support.
- “No Golden Ticket, but More Than Candy” – New York Times (7 Jan. 2007).
- “Happily,” wrote PETA activist Kathy Guillermo, in a December Ithaca Journal guest column, “… chimpanzees have gone to Chimp Haven, a naturalistic sanctuary in Louisiana, under an agreement that they will be permanently retired from research.”
- See Federal News Service, “Hearing of the Health and Environment Subcommittee of the House Commerce Committee: Chimpanzees and Biomedical Research” chaired by Rep. Michael Bilirakis (hereinafter “18 May 2000 Hearing”) (testimony of Dr. John Strandberg of the NIH).
- See 18 May 2000 Hearing, note 3 above (statement of Rep. Greenwood). Senator Bob Smith (R-NH) introduced the Senate version of the Act in June, 2000.
- See Wade Roush, “Chimp Retirement Plan Proposed: Proposal for Chimpanzee Management Program to Care for Surplus Laboratory Chimpanzees” - Science (25 Jul. 1997). By late 2001, an agreement between the NIH and Chimp Haven was underway.
- From a reply sent to a member of the public by Rick DelaHaya <email@example.com> in November 2006.
- John Donnelly, Boston Globe (24 Dec. 2006).
- See 18 May 2000 Hearing, note 3 above.
- See “Chimp Haven Responds to the CHIMP Act,” Chimpanzee Chronicle, Vol. III, Issue II (Chimp Haven; Winter 2001), reporting that the NIH proposal called for the initial housing of 200 chimpanzees and the potential to increase that number to 900 chimpanzees: “This would mean that once Chimp Haven has established the first sanctuary in Shreveport, LA, there could potentially be more Chimp Haven sanctuaries throughout the United States …”
- Earlier in 2006, after a series of inspections, Ohio State entered into a contract to transfer ownership of these apes to Primarily Primates in Texas, with funds to build new living enclosures.
- Under the CHIMP Act, the Department of Health and Human Services allocates up to $30,000,000 annually.
- Simultaneously, the sanctuary movement itself is suffering, to the extent that activists help persuade the public to support the assumption that primates are suitably kept under NIH control.
- The public relations update was reported by “JS” -- presumably Jordan Smith, the reporter who wrote “Famous Long Ago.” Available: http://tinyurl.com/yznz6z (last visited 3 Jan. 2007).
- The American Antivivisection Society, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the National Antivivisection Society, the Society for Animal Protective Legislation, In Defense of Animals, and the very wealthy Humane Society of the United States all submitted testimonial support for the law -- even though the two major U.S. sanctuary associations opposed it.