Humane Society of the U.S. affiliate moves to enforce “ag-gag” against whistleblowers
BLUE RIDGE, Georgia––Former Project Chimps staff members Crystal Alba and Lindsay Vanderhoogt, as well as their criticisms of the north Georgia sanctuary for chimpanzees formerly used in laboratories, might still be almost unknown to the world, except that Project Chimps recently sued them, apparently over a web page––HelpTheChimps.org––they posted months earlier to little evident notice beyond the relatively small number of people actually involved with the sanctuary.
Alba and Vanderhoogt claim in A GoFundMe appeal posted by Vanderhoogt on June 5, 2020, seeking help with the cost of their legal defense, to have “exposed maltreatment and declining quality of care” at Project Chimps “to federal authorities, public policy advocates, and the press.”
Case seeks other whistleblowers’ identity
Alba and Vanderhoogt “are now being sued by Project Chimps in retaliation for their complaints,” the GoFundMe appeal says.
“The case is pending in Fannin County Superior Court,” the appeal continues. “This lawsuit threatens to force Crystal and Lindsay to produce personal messages regarding Project Chimps, which could potentially expose the identities of other whistleblowers involuntarily. This ruling could potentially jeopardize the employment of current Project Chimps employees who have expressed concern privately, but who are hoping to remain anonymous to keep their jobs.
The GoFundMe appeal as of June 21, 2020 had raised $11,586. Except for one anonymous contribution of $2,700, almost all of it came from small donors.
Blogger Donny Moss adds further questions
But the GoFundMe appeal also attracted the notice of film maker and Their Turn blogger Donny Moss, of New York City.
Moss on June 11, 2020 amplified the GoFundMe appeal in depth and detail, adding his own questions about the management of the Second Chance Chimpanzee Refuge in Liberia.
Both Project Chimps and the Second Chance Chimpanzee Refuge are affiliates of the Humane Society of the United States, the latter via the HSUS subsidiary Humane Society International.
At least some of the Alba and Vanderhoogt allegations appear to have been supported by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, another organization with close ties to HSUS.
While the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries recently gave Project Chimps a generally favorable report, it concluded with a set of recommendations addressing the substance of the Alba and Vanderhoogt critique.
Explains HelpTheChimps.org, “The mission statement of Project Chimps is to provide ‘lifelong exemplary care to chimpanzees retired from research.’ However, it’s more like a warehouse for chimps to sit, bored, for the remainder of their lives while their images are used for social media and fundraising. They only have occasional access to the outdoors and receive little veterinary care or time-consuming enrichment.
“Eleven whistleblowers raised welfare concerns in January 2020,” HelpTheChimps.org says. “These concerns still have not been addressed.”
Specifically, HelpTheChimps.org alleges, “The chimpanzees at Project Chimps exhibit numerous abnormal behaviors that they developed before and after coming to the sanctuary. However, nothing is done by Project Chimps to reduce or mitigate these behaviors.
Limited outdoor access
“The enclosure floors at Project Chimps are concrete with no natural substrate,” HelpTheChimps.org says, illustrating the charge with photographs. “As a result, urine and feces pool on the floor.”
Adds HelpTheChimps.org, “Each group of chimpanzees only goes outdoors once every three days, and only for a few hours at a time. If they miss their day due to [inclement] weather or someone in their group being injured, they miss their turn and wait three more days. In addition, the chimps aren’t given time-consuming enrichment to keep them engaged while stuck indoors.”
The HelpTheChimps.org description of Project Chimps operating procedures seems to contradict Project Chimps’ claim on IRS Form 990 that, “In 2018, Project Chimps completed the rehabilitation of a forested six-acre outdoor habitat, where the chimpanzees now run freely, forage, and climb trees with no caging overhead.”
Vanderhoogt, hired when Project Chimps opened in 2016, left in February 2018, before the work described on IRS Form 990 was done. Alba, however, was there until March 2020.
By then, Vanderhoogt, Alba, and many other current and former Project Chimps staff had already taken their complaints to the Project Chimps management and board.
Turned to PETA
Frustrated when corrective action did not promptly follow, they turned to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in January 2020.
“We were really disturbed by what we heard,” PETA senior vice president for laboratory investigations Kathy Guillermo told Natalie Kissel of FetchYourNews in April 2020.
PETA in turn took the complaints to both the Project Chimps board of directors and to HSUS. Neither was responsive, Guillermo indicated to Kissel.
PETA then “turned the allegations over to the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS), which is the body that accredits sanctuaries and accredited Project Chimps,” Guillermo told Kissel.
The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries was formed in 2007 with the active direction of HSUS. At least five of the 19 currently listed Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries board & staff have longtime close associations with HSUS & HSUS subsidiaries, including former HSUS chief operating officer Mike Markarian, HSUS vice president of animal care services and veterinary services Melissa Rubin, HSUS board member Peter Bender, Humane Society International representative Gretel Delgaddillo, and veterinarian Kim Haddad, who was among the point people in founding GFAS.
“Some systems that need to be put in place”
All of that made the ensuing GFAS visit to Project Chimps essentially a matter of one arm of HSUS inspecting another. But the GFAS findings appear to have been, nonetheless, not a whitewash.
“We certainly didn’t find anything that was an emergency as far as animal welfare and animal health,” GFAS Executive Director Valerie Taylor told Kissel. “There were no concerns for animal or human safety.
“What we found is just some systems that need to be put into place so that it will help the sanctuary,” Taylor said, “particularly as they look to increase their population of animals retiring out of laboratories.”
Seven recommendations accepted
Project Chimps accepted seven GFAS recommendations, agreeing that it should:
• Contract with a vet, in addition to the existing veterinarian, who has extensive chimpanzee experience to review specific medical cases and carry out an in-person assessment of all chimpanzees.
• Add a cover sheet to each chimpanzee’s medical file highlighting the information contained within it.
• Prioritize the development of standard operating procedures that focus on issues such as health assessment, body condition scoring, monthly weight monitoring and fecal collection.
• Implement a planned schedule for providing physical enrichment items to ensure the rotation of those items.
• Prioritize the addition of certain features of the already-planned installation of new climbing structures, including low platforms.
• Ensure a trained spotter is present and observing when another trained staff member enters the zone closest to the chimpanzee enclosure.
• Fill a position that focuses on behavioral needs and/or enrichment for the chimpanzees.
Those recommendations, if and when fulfilled, address most of the HelpTheChimps.org complaints.
From three gorillas to 78 chimps
Many of the remaining complaints seem to result from complications of the 2016 rapid conversion of the 236-acre former Dewar Wildlife Trust sanctuary into the Project Chimps sanctuary, under deadline pressure to accommodate the 78 chimpanzees already on site, and eventually to accommodate more than 200, according to plans announced by then-HSUS president Wayne Pacelle on May 4, 2016.
The Dewar Wildlife Trust had from 1997 to 2015 housed just three gorillas. The site has been repurposed to house the chimp colony formerly kept by the New Iberia Research Center, managed by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Alba recited a list of construction and maintenance issues including “poor drainage, peeling paint, lack of platforms and poorly conceived door placement,” Kissel wrote, such that “door placement has actually resulted in chimps from separate groups being able to fight one another.”
Money & priorities
Alleged Alba, “Water leaks into the walls causing moldy insulation.”
On sun porches, Alba told Kissel, the chimps “get almost no sunlight due to a solid platform built over them, intended to be a viewing area for donors.”
Building the facilities to house all of the chimpanzees as advertised to donors and at the same time take in nearly twice as many more of course requires raising a lot of money, from a lot of donors.
Of necessity, there have been questions of priorities: whether to house more chimps as soon as possible, or to improve the facilities for the chimps already there?
Anxiety over winning release of more chimps
These choices are driven in part by anxiety that delay in accepting chimpanzees slated for retirement by various biomedical research facilities may result in the chimps not being sent to sanctuaries at all.
National Institutes of Health director Francis S. Collins in October 2019 announced that 44 chimps who were previously scheduled to be transferred from the Alamogordo Primate Facility in New Mexico to the Chimp Haven sanctuary in Shreveport, Louisiana, would instead remain in Alamogordo because they had become too old to move safely.
Wrote Project Chimps board president Bruce Wagman, a San Francisco lawyer, in an email forwarded to Project Chimps employees by executive director Ali Crumpacker on January 30, 2020, “Currently many labs that previously performed biomedical research on chimpanzees are arguing that the retired chimpanzees should spend the rest of their lives in those labs and not go to sanctuary.
Labs argue “that sanctuaries are inadequate to help chimps”
“Those labs,” Wagman said, “are actively seeking information that would help them argue that sanctuaries are inadequate to help chimps, and so that chimps should stay in the labs. Reporting concerns to outside groups,” Wagman argued, “before internal investigations have even been conducted to determine if there truly is an issue, jeopardizes the health and welfare of chimpanzees across the country.”
The obvious rejoinder to that is that if a sanctuary is not clearly offering superior facilities and care to a retired chimp than a laboratory, what is the point of moving the chimp in the first place?
If laboratory operators can so much as begin to make a persuasive case to the public that they provide better conditions for retired chimps than a sanctuary, with the difference not night-and-day self-evident, the sanctuary is falling down on the job.
Shirts of many colors
The other driving concern is funding.
“Now more than ever,” Vanderhoogt told Kissel, “it seems that instead of the focus being on the chimps and their welfare, it’s now focused on image and pulling in as much money as possible.”
Agreed former Project Chimps donations coordinator Lucy Becerra, “I know a lot of funding was spent on unnecessary promotional marketing to get more funding and made a priority over the chimps and their care. It was all about presentation and the image they wanted to portray to social media and donors.”
Becerra described to Kissel a “mass order of shirts of different colors that were not to the administrations’ liking,” and were therefore “ripped up specifically so that neither the staff nor the public could use or wear them, and then thrown away.”
Following the money
The Humane Society of the U.S. has annual income of $129 million and holds $219 million in net assets, according to IRS Form 990 for fiscal year 2018, the most recent available.
Nearly $3.9 million of the 2018 total was involved in “intercompany activity” between HSUS and Project Chimps.
This included $2,566,145 in cash transfers from HSUS to Project Chimps, $1,008,979 in program grants from HSUS to Project Chimps, and $106,783 in salaries paid by HSUS for Project Chimps-related work.
Project Chimps operates on an annual budget of about $3 million and has about $6 million in net assets, according to IRS Form 990.
There is no indication that Alba and Vanderhoogt have in any way jeopardized the HSUS or Project Chimps cash flow. Indeed, Alba and Vanderhoogt have emphasized that they do not want their criticisms of Project Chimps to discourage donations.
See no evil, hear no evil, say no evil
But Wagman, a San Francisco lawyer, also in his email forwarded to Project Chimps staff on January 30, 2020, charged in response to Alba, Vanderhoogt, and the other internal critics, “What we discovered when lining up the facts with the claims, was that almost all of the concerns were either based on false statements, unfair mischaracterizations of events, or, at best, honest differences of opinion about our practices and protocols. We found zero actual problems in the chimpanzee welfare area and zero valid concerns with our veterinary efforts.”
Wagman went on to remind staff of “a very important confidentiality policy at Project Chimps,” under which “It is forbidden for a volunteer or employee to ‘engage in private or public discussion with or otherwise disclose to anyone outside of Project Chimps any information regarding…particular protocols of Project Chimps related to the care and management of the chimpanzees at Project Chimps’ sanctuary.’
Vital to “the protection of our chimpanzees”?
“The policy,” Wagman said, “applies to all forms of communication––oral, written, social media, email, ‘as well as the dissemination of photographs or film or video of Project Chimps activities.’”
“That policy is vital to the protection of our chimpanzees and to the organization,” Wagman claimed, to “protect Project Chimps from having third party groups, which do not have the full picture or all of the facts or may have agendas of their own, from attacking Project Chimps based on the kind of false information and mischaracterizations that we have seen in the reports we received.”
HSUS president Kitty Block on “ag-gags”
Ironically, Humane Society of the U.S. president Kitty Block has repeatedly denounced policies and legislation, often called “ag-gags,” which allow animal use industry facilities such as farms, slaughterhouses, and laboratories to enforce confidentiality agreements by suing or criminally prosecuting whistleblowers who disclose what might be called “particular protocols related the care and management” of animals.
Blogged Block on March 11, 2020, “Ag-gag bills restrict transparency on factory farms by criminalizing the actions of good-faith whistleblowers and preventing investigations into abuse. Bills of this nature introduced in Iowa and Alabama this year have already died,” Block boasted, “and over the past decade, HSUS and our allies have defeated more than 30 such bills across the country.”
Why should the reasonable demand for public exposure and accountability on the part of animal industry facilities not also apply to sanctuaries, and indeed, not be demonstrated by sanctuaries in an exemplary manner?
“HSUS takes credit for victories achieved by other groups”
Opened Donny Moss in his response to the Project Chimps lawsuit against Alba and Vanderhoogt, “Many animal advocates know that the Humane Society of the United States takes credit for victories achieved by other groups and fundraises on the back of those successes.
“This happened to me and other grass roots activists in New York City,” Moss alleged, “after we secured a $6 million settlement on behalf of 66 abandoned chimpanzees used in research. But what many people don’t know is that HSUS has used – and is continuing to use – outside law firms to intimidate, threaten and sue some of its (now former) employees who, after attempting to effect change from within, have publicly exposed systemic abuses of animals in HSUS’s care, some of which I have observed firsthand.
“I am not a disgruntled HSUS employee,” Moss stipulated. “In fact, I have never been employed by HSUS or any other animal protection organization. On the contrary, I am an independent grassroots advocate without bosses, budgets or boards to take into account.
“Prioritizing public image over quality work”
“Over the past several years,” Moss summarized, “many employees and contractors, including caregivers, vet techs, veterinarians and construction workers, at HSUS’s two chimpanzee sanctuaries (Project Chimps in Georgia and Second Chance Chimpanzee Refuge in Liberia) have been so alarmed by the neglect, deprivation and other forms of abuse [they claim to have witnessed] that they were willing to risk their jobs, financial security and future employment prospects by speaking out.
Said Moss, “I don’t know why HSUS has ignored the pleas for reform by so many of its own employees. I can only surmise, based on its reputation for prioritizing its public image over of the quality of its work, that HSUS doesn’t want to acknowledge the underlying organizational problems that have enabled these [alleged] abuses to emerge and become normalized.
Moss: “I believe the Project Chimps whistleblowers”
“I believe the Project Chimps whistleblowers,” Moss testified, “including the two who HSUS [via Project Chimps] is now suing, not only because I’ve reviewed the extensive documentation they have provided on HelpTheChimps.org, but also because I’ve witnessed similar abuses, which continue in secrecy halfway around the world at HSUS’s chimpanzee sanctuary in Liberia.
“In 2015,” Moss recounted, “the New York Blood Center, which conducted experiments on chimpanzees at a laboratory in Liberia,” called Vilab II, “abandoned 66 survivors on six small islands on a nearby river. After seeing the starving chimps from a boat, an American scientist working in Liberia contacted HSUS to sound the alarm and ask for help.
“To its credit,” Moss continued, “HSUS responded quickly, launching a GoFundMe campaign to raise money and hiring great ape experts with considerable sanctuary experience to oversee the chimps’ care. Jenny Desmond and her husband, Jim Desmond, DVM, who is a great ape veterinarian, put their lives on hold and moved to Liberia to address the emergency.
HSUS told Desmonds to turn away chimp orphans
“The Desmonds quickly improved the quality of life of the abandoned chimps,” Moss described, as an eyewitness, “providing them with daily deliveries of fresh produce, enrichment activities to help occupy their time on the small islands, and birth control.
“Even though they never met me,” Moss explained, “the Desmonds invited me to stay with them in Liberia so that I could see with my own eyes the stunning transformation of the chimps for whom we were protesting in New York City. During my visit, in February 2017,” Moss said, “I could see that the Desmonds were doing an excellent job taking care of the chimps, especially in light of the difficult conditions in Liberia.”
Later in 2017, however, “Relations between the Desmonds and HSUS began to deteriorate,” Moss continued, “because they refused HSUS’s demand to turn away chimpanzee orphans who Liberian forestry officials brought to them for sanctuary. These orphans were victims of the bushmeat and exotic pet trades. Providing a refuge was vital not only to welfare of the orphans, who had no place else to go, but also to the conservation of Liberia’s wild chimps. Without a sanctuary, the forestry authorities would have continued to turn a blind eye to the poaching of adult chimpanzees and the trafficking of babies.”
“HSUS did not renew their contract”
HSUS and the HSUS subsidiary Humane Society International had reason to not want to become bogged down in looking after an endless stream of orphaned chimps in Liberia, where several other nonprofit sanctuary projects funded from the U.S. have come to grief amid corruption and political instability. At the same time, HSUS and HSI donors to chimp projects might be expected to favor helping all chimps in need, not just those marooned by the New York Blood Center.
“The Desmonds took a principled stand,” Moss wrote, “and HSUS did not renew their contract.”
The Desmonds went on to form Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue & Protection, reportedly now looking after 59 orphaned chimpanzees.
Returning to Liberia in November 2018, “after HSUS severed ties with the Desmonds,” Moss stated, “I saw for myself not only a decline in the quality of the food and a lack of enrichment activities” at the Second Chance Chimpanzee Refuge, “but also that HSUS had not yet begun to build desperately needed basic infrastructure, including holding areas and shelters on each island; an emergency enclosure and veterinary clinic at HSUS’s office; and security posts to protect both the chimps and humans.”
“HSUS hasn’t built even one structure”
Charged Moss, “In the three years since receiving the $6 million settlement, HSUS hasn’t built even one structure, and the chimpanzees – off of whom they continue to raise money – are paying the price.”
Moss said he had “contacted HSUS and the chairman of the board,” Maryland attorney and pit bull advocate Rick Bernthal, but “They dismissed my concerns and said that I was misinformed in spite of the fact that I went to Liberia twice and witnessed the decline in care with my own eyes.
“Given my firsthand knowledge of how HSUS treats its chimps and employees in Liberia,” Moss said, “I was not surprised to learn about the [allegedly] abysmal conditions at Project Chimps in Georgia and the lawsuit filed by Project Chimps against Lindsay Vanderhoogt and Crystal Alba.”
Why is Project Chimps suing whistleblowers, instead of thanking them?
The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries report “not only validates some of the whistleblowers’ concerns,” Moss averred, “but it also begs the question of why HSUS’s Project Chimps is suing the whistleblowers instead of thanking them for calling attention to the problems.
“In addition to implementing GFAS’s recommendation and reforming the internal political environment,” Moss opined, “HSUS needs to acknowledge that the whistleblowers were acting in the best interests of the chimps and pull the lawsuit, including the demand that Crystal and Lindsay pay Project Chimps’s legal bills.
“In addition to reforming Project Chimps,” Moss concluded, “HSUS needs to make significant infrastructure and management changes at its sanctuary in Liberia, or transition the sanctuary to the Desmonds, who are already running a sanctuary just a few miles away and are well poised to build desperately needed infrastructure for the chimps and oversee their care on the islands.”