Founding scientists had committed to lifelong care
NEW YORK CITY, MONROVIA, CINCINNATI–– “The New York Blood Center––already embroiled in charges it has abandoned 66 former research chimps to starve to death in Liberia––apparently discarded another largely unknown group of 20 chimps in Ivory Coast in 1983, on an island adjacent to Azagny National Park,” Stop Animal Exploitation Now cofounder Michael Budkie charged on August 10, 2015.
The once renowned Vilab II chimp colony in Liberia was always much more famous, but the Ivory Coast colony “was discussed in a 1984 New York Times article,” Budkie said, “and was documented in the 2003 book West African Chimpanzees,” produced by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
One lone survivor
“All but one of the Ivory Coast chimps have died,” Budkie added, claiming to have “photo and video evidence that the Ivory Coast chimps were left for dead by the New York Blood Center.
“Eleven of the chimps died or disappeared in the months following their relocation to Ivory Coast,” Budkie recounted. “The survivors were moved to a smaller island, and over time all but one of the remaining chimps died of disease or hunger. The sole survivor, Ponso, lives socially isolated on the island and is fed bread and bananas by a local farmer.
“Local activists in Ivory Coast and the U.S. are working to ensure that Ponso will be fed, cared for, and relocated to a sanctuary as soon as possible,” Budkie said. Meanwhile, “His existence is precarious at best,” Budkie assessed, “as his fate rests in the hands of only one caring individual who has no funding and who lacks the ability to provide proper food and medical care. The island on which he lives has no food resources. All support from the New York Blood Center ended long ago.
“Blood Center is responsible”
“The New York Blood Center is responsible for the death of these chimps,” Budkie emphasized. “The deaths of these chimps clearly demonstrate the precarious situation that the Liberian chimps are in. Is the New York Blood Center prepared to let 65 of the 66 chimps in Liberia die as well?”
Budkie’s allegations came ten weeks after Kaleigh Rogers of Motherboard––among the few journalists to have visited the Liberian chimp colony in person––exposed the former Vilab II chimps’ plight on May 28, 2015.
“On a string of tiny islands in the middle of a river,” Rogers began, “dozens of chimpanzees await an increasingly bleak future. The swampy jungle islands provide the chimps no food, no water, and because chimps aren’t strong swimmers, no means of escape. The apes aren’t from the islands, but for the last 10 years, the islands have been their home. Now they’re in danger of starving there.
“Placed on the islands by human hands, the chimps rely on human caretakers to provide food and water,” Rogers wrote. “But earlier this year, the U.S. nonprofit that left these retired research chimps on islands in the middle of the war-torn and Ebola-ravaged African nation of Liberia pulled the funding required to ensure their care. In 2005, the New York Blood Center left its research chimps to retire with a promise of lifetime care. In March 2015, it abandoned them for somebody else to worry about.
“Reduced feeding schedule”
“The 66 chimps are currently surviving on a reduced feeding schedule paid for through emergency funds pieced together by the Humane Society of the U.S. and the personal donations of a handful of individual conservationists,” Rogers said.
The Jane Goodall Institute, Born Free USA, and In Defense of Animals have also helped. But the longterm fate of the chimps remains uncertain.
Vilab II was founded to give lab chimps better care
How and why the New York Blood Center came to strand chimps in Ivory Coast and Liberia is a saga that started in 1964, when Aaron Kellner, M.D. and others founded the New York Blood Center, rapidly expanding it into the biggest blood bank and blood research institution in the world.
Kellner hired senior scientist Alfred M. Prince, M.D., who in turn hired secretary Betsy Brotman out of Bennington College in 1968.
“Her desk job did not last long,” recounted Andrew Revkin of The New York Times in May 1996. Prince and Brotman began collecting blood samples from chimpanzees in 1970 at the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine & Surgery In Primates (LEMSIP), founded in 1963 by New York University scientist Jan Moor Jankowski (1924-2005).
The chimps were at that time singly housed, “bored and depressed, and routinely exhibited aberrant behavior such as rocking,” an official Vilab II project history recalled years later. “They become progressively less able to continue our research under these inhumane conditions.”
Prince in 1971 sent Brotman to West Africa, “to try to collect blood samples from wild chimpanzees,” Revkin wrote.
In 1974, while seeking a way to acquire chimps other than from brokers who obtained wild baby chimps by shooting their mothers, Prince discovered the remnants of the Liberian Institute of Tropical Medicine, begun in 1946 to follow up research begun in 1926 by Harvard Department of Tropical Medicine chief Richard Pearson Strong. The Firestone Rubber Company had in 1926 founded the world’s largest rubber plantation at Harbel, Liberia, and for decades thereafter funded tropical medical research meant to keep the workers healthy.
Built by Firestone, the 120-acre Liberian Institute of Tropical Medicine complex had once employed 60 scientists. By 1974, however, the Firestone funding and ended, and only one of the first scientists to arrive, Earl Reber, remained on the 120-acre site, with eight chimps.
Took chimps to LEMSIP
Prince evacuated the eight chimps to LEMSIP, but had second thoughts, he recalled in his autobiography The Poetry of Life.
“I regret not having provided them with a better future,” Prince wrote. “On my way back to the U.S. I wondered whether it might not be possible to restart the Liberian Institute of Tropical Medicine so that we could do our future chimpanzee research there, at less cost than in the U.S., and importantly, with much improved facilities for housing and care of the chimps.
“An additional stimulus became evident when I visited two chimp exporters in nearby Sierra Leone. In their compounds animals were held with minimal standards of hygiene, and no laboratory facilities or veterinary care. In one of these compounds 32 chimpanzees had recently died of dysentery.”
The move to Liberia
Recounted the Vilab II project history, “It was resolved, with the strong support of Aaron Kellner, to move the research [then done in New York] to Liberia, where the chimpanzees could be housed in a more kindly environment and eventually retired in socialized groups to the wild or to semi-wild conditions.”
Brotman and one of her daughters relocated to Liberia to assemble and manage the Vilab II chimp research colony. The first chimps arrived in 1975. Eventually the colony included more 200 chimps, some of whom were retired to island colonies as early as 1978.
In 1986 Brotman married British engineer Brian Garnham, who joined the research team.
Recalled Revkin, “Scientists at the Vilab compound, 40 miles outside of Monrovia [the Liberian capital city], made substantial progress in the fight against viral hepatitis. The laboratory also worked on a possible vaccine against the parasite that causes river blindness, an ailment affecting some 17 million Africans. But in December 1989,” when civil war broke out, Brotman and staff “abandoned the laboratory, and half of the chimpanzees died of starvation or thirst.”
Turning to relief work on behalf of human refugees, “In November 1990, Brotman and her husband filled their house with starving babies left behind after a village was massacred,” Revkin continued. “One of the infants soon became Ms. Brotman’s youngest daughter, Sylvannah. She also adopted two older girls.”
About 90 chimps who survived the next several years had already been retired to island refuges. When Garnham on January 31, 1993 asked soldiers who invaded the Vilab facilities to spare the 120 chimps who were still at the compound, the soldiers shot him dead, in front of Brotman and Sylvannah.
Twelve chimps who had been infected with hepatitis during experiments subsequently vanished, apparently killed and eaten by some of the soldiers, who may thereby have become infected themselves. Another chimp was shot and abandoned; yet another died of thirst.
Veterinarian Patricia Gullett of the Lindsley F. Kimball Research Institute of the New York Blood Center made three trips to the Vilab II chimp colony with food and water during the two weeks after Garnham’s murder, but was unable to get the factions fighting in the area to agree to a ceasefire long enough to permit the evacuation of the surviving chimps.
Blood Center lost interest
By the time Brotman was able to return to Vilab II, in 1996, the New York Blood Center appeared to have already lost enthusiasm for the project. Kellner, after 25 years as executive director and president, had retired in 1989; he died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease on December 11, 1992, at age 78, 43 days before Garnham was shot.
The New York Blood Center contract with the Liberian government to operate Vilab II expired in 2007.
After that, according to New York Blood Center statements, “When our research ended, we decided to support the sanctuary on a charitable basis until the Government of Liberia could take over, even though we never owned the animals, the land or the facilities. We attempted for more than five years to find a workable solution for the care, maintenance and feeding of these animals. We held discussions with numerous animal welfare groups and the Government of Liberia, all to no avail. No one wanted to help.
“Eventually, we had no choice but to inform the Liberians that we could no longer provide this charitable support and gave them advance notice to ensure a smooth transition. The Government of Liberia and animal rights organizations knew all along that our support was voluntary and could not continue. Yet they did nothing to help us.”
Disavowed Prince pledges
Prince had repeatedly pledged that the New York Blood Center would look after the Vilab II chimps for the rest of their lives. In December 2005, for instance, seeking a sanctuary to take over the operations, Prince wrote in the American Society of Primatologists Bulletin that the blood center “recognizes its responsibility to provide an endowment to fund the sanctuary for the lifetime care of the chimpanzees.”
Prince, however, died at age 82 on October 18, 2011. The New York Blood Center now disavows his pledges.
“Prince was an employee of the New York Blood Center,” the institution says now, “but he made statements that were his own opinions and not authorized or approved by the New York Blood Center.”
Funding ended with 60 days notice
In January 2015, recounted Rogers of Motherboard, “the New York Blood Center, which collects millions of dollars in revenue each year and pays its executive employees six-figure salaries, decided to cut off the approximately $380,000 (according to IRS Form 990) needed each year to care for the chimps.
Without any transition plan in place, and amid the Ebola crisis,” which killed more than 3,000 Liberians in 2014-2015, “ the New York Blood Center issued a letter to LIBR on January 5, 2015 to say it was pulling the funding for the chimp sanctuary in 60 days.
“The New York Blood Center claimed $1.5 million in revenue after expenses in 2013, along with $459 million in assets,” Rogers continued. “As one of the largest blood banks and research centers in the country, it also attracts generous donations, including $250,000 this year from MetLife and $5 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.”
HSUS stepped in
Blogged Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle on August 11, 2015, “We are now bearing the cost of caring for the chimps, and it’s about $20,000 a month for us.”
The New York Blood Center, Pacelle said, is “essentially arguing that after an organization with more than $300 million in annual revenue gathers animals from the wild and from the pet trade, infects them with the hepatitis B virus to intentionally sicken them, and then decides it doesn’t want them any longer, it’s the duty of animal welfare organizations to fund the care of chimps they used to develop vaccines that generated massive revenue for the New York Blood Center.”
The New York Blood Center in fact generates approximately twice the income of HSUS, the largest animal welfare organization in the world.
“Never seen anything as disgusting”
Commented Duke University anthropologist and primatologist Brian Hare, “I have studied great apes for 20 years in all contexts across the globe—labs, zoos, sanctuaries, the wild. Never, ever have I seen anything even remotely as disgusting as this.”
HSUS became involved on March 6, 2015, after Fatorma K. Bolay, director of the Liberian Institute for Biomedical Research in Charlesville, told the news web site Front Page Africa that the institute had been looking after the chimps, but could no longer pay for their food and care.
“Caretakers working for free”
“The caretakers are working for free,” Bolay told James Gorman of The New York Times. “The humane society hired Agnes Souchal, general manager of the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center in Cameroon,” funded by In Defense of Animals, “to assess the state of the chimpanzees. She said in an interview that there is little to no natural food on the islands and the animals were completely dependent on their caretakers, who were feeding them every other day. The feeding schedule had not changed, but there was more food in the past, she said. She said she found chimpanzees ‘without water,’ since their water supply system had failed,” but it has since been repaired.
Wrote Rogers, “Now 72 years old, retired, and living in New Jersey, Brotman worries about the chimps she left behind. She told me she was horrified, but not surprised, by the NYBC’s decision to stop paying to feed the apes.”
“The management of the blood center was very different when I first started to work there,” Brotman told Rogers. “They don’t seem to have any sense of responsibility for the animals. You have to know: Vilab brought those chimps to the institute and we permitted or encouraged them to breed. This had nothing to do with the Liberian government. There were no chimps there until we put our feet there.”
Noted Rogers, “The chimps were [later] sterilized to prevent the population from continuing to grow, but some of the sterilizations were not effective and as a result, there are some juvenile and baby chimps currently living on the islands.”
Which means that if the young chimps live normal lifespans, funding will be needed for their ongoing care for another 50 years or more.