Whether chimps can talk is much less perplexing than whether humans can care for them adequately after research use
BLUE RIDGE, Georgia––Few people visit Blue Ridge, Georgia, population fewer than 1,500 humans, plus 78 chimpanzees retired from biomedical research use to the Project Chimps sanctuary.
Quality of care issues have in 2020 emerged as a cause celebré at Project Chimps, an affiliate of the Humane Society of the United States.
But the animal advocacy world has for 50 years frequently visited and revisited comparable situations involving cast-off chimpanzees, often with confusingly similar names and dismayingly similar outcomes.
Project Chimps, Project X, & Project Nim
Before the present controversy over Project Chimps, there was Project Nim, an award-winning 2011 film biography of Nim Chimpsky directed by James Marsh.
Nim Chimpsky was among the first and most famous of a multitude of nonhuman primates who were taught various methods of communicating with people in language experiments during the 1970s.
Before Project Nim, there was Project X, the 1987 Matthew Broderick film inspired by chimpanzee experiments done by the U.S. Air Force, mostly in the 1960s.
The experiments left a legacy of hundreds of chimpanzees warehoused for decades by the now defunct Coulston Foundation at Alamogordo, New Mexico, alongside a smaller colony used by the National Aeronautics & Space Administration [NASA].
Some retired to Florida
Some of the former Air Force and NASA chimps were eventually transferred to sanctuaries; a few dozen remain in Alamogordo, deemed too old to be moved.
Project X concludes with a highly improbable and now very politically incorrect accidental mass release of chimps into the Florida Everglades. This fictional scenario presaged by about 10 years the formation of the Center for Great Apes and Save The Chimps sanctuaries near Wauchula and Fort Pierce, Florida, founded respectively by Patti Regan and the late Carol Noon.
Before any of the above, there were the 1985 amendments to the U.S. Animal Welfare Act of 1971. The 1985 amendments mandated environmental enrichment and a variety of other improvements in the care of dogs and nonhuman primates kept by federally funded research institutions.
Before the 1985 amendments, there was the real-life Nim Chimpsky saga, that eventually helped to inspire the years of activism pushing Congress to enact the amendments.
The amendments were introduced in part because publicity about Nim Chimpsky’s many moves among primate research facilities early in life helped to expose deficient conditions at all of them, and extreme cruelty at some of them.
The Nim Chimpsky case in turn helped to inspire a generation of activists and journalists to investigate and expose many primate research facilities and protocols. Some caused animals much worse suffering than the psychological cruelty and deprivation that Nim experienced. Some still do.
Bringing discussion of Nim Chimpsky around full circle to the evidently faltering Project Chimps effort to accommodate retired laboratory chimpanzees is the continuing involvement of primatologist Robert “Bob” Ingersoll.
As a University of Oklahoma graduate student, Ingersoll was the outspoken advocate who kept Nim Chimpsky’s story before mass media for years, long after others who had used Nim to gain their “fifteen minutes of fame” preferred that he become just another chimp anonymously shuttled from lab to lab until finally used in some obscure lethal experiment.
Ingersoll was the star of Project Nim, whose observations and commentary linked the many phases of Nim’s fractured life, from birth at the Institute for Primate Studies near Norman, Oklahoma, to death from a heart attack 26 years later at the Black Beauty Ranch sanctuary in northeast Texas.
Ingersoll today is among the growing number of chimpanzee experts who wonder why Project Chimps and the Humane Society of the U.S. seem to be investing more time and effort in suing former Project Chimps staff members Crystal Alba and Lindsay Vanderhoogt, for allegedly violating confidentiality agreements by making possible Animal Welfare Act violations public, than in actually resolving issues that many other current and former staff have also pointed toward.
Solving the problems, including architectural issues, might cost Project Chimps and HSUS even more than lawyer time. But even a visible good-faith effort to improve the allegedly deficient Project Chimps facilities could buy time and positive public relations that trying to kill the messengers most likely will not.
Their Turn blogger Donny Moss, of New York City, on June 11, 2020 amplified GoFundMe appeals posted by Alba and Vanderhoogt, seeking help with their legal defense.
“I believe the Project Chimps whistleblowers,” Moss testified, “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,” called the Second Chance Chimpanzee Refuge.
Moss himself has twice visited the Second Chance Chimpanzee Refuge. Moss led the campaign that won $6 million to fund creating it, after learning that the New York Blood Center had abandoned 66 survivors of chimp experiments done at the center’s former Vilab II research facility in Liberia.
The Moss blog on June 22, 2020 brought an extensive response from Kathleen Conlee, the Humane Society of the U.S. vice president for animal research issues and a director of the Second Chance Chimpanzee Refuge, representing the HSUS subsidiary Humane Society International.
Concerning the situation in Liberia, Conlee essentially pleaded the difficulty of working in developing world conditions. Conlee argued that Moss had not actually seen what he saw and detailed.
That much was predictable. What was less predictable was what Conlee wrote next.
“Project Chimps invited the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries [GFAS] to provide an objective, outside assessment of its sanctuary,” Conlee said, making no mention that the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries was formed in 2007 with the active direction of the Humane Society of the U.S.
That close association continues. At least five of the 19 currently listed Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries board & staff have longtime links to 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.
“While GFAS did provide some recommendations,” Conlee continued, “they were predominantly administrative—for example, adding a cover sheet to the animals’ medical files and formalizing specific procedures in written Standard Operating Procedures.
“Other recommendations simply confirmed the need for actions that Project Chimps had already budgeted for and was in the process of performing before the GFAS review, such as adding lower platforms to the chimpanzees’ climbing equipment.”
A good swift kick in the Act
A closer look at the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries recommendations, however, suggests that––despite HSUS’ close relationship to GFAS––they were figuratively meant as a good swift kick in the direction of meeting the minimum standards for primate welfare prescribed by the 1985 amendments to the Animal Welfare Act, for which HSUS lobbied and later claimed credit.
The very first recommendation was that Project Chimps 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.”
The “attending veterinarian” required for animal care facilities covered by the Animal Welfare Act must be “a person who,” besides being a veterinarian, “has received training and/or experience in the care and management of the species being attended.”
The latter was apparently not true of the original Project Chimps veterinarian, who has now retired.
Fecal collection vs. rigor mortis
The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries recommendation that Project Chimps should “Add a cover sheet to each chimpanzee’s medical file highlighting the information contained within it” is routine practice at dog-and-cat veterinary hospitals. That it even had to be mentioned to Project Chimps is surprising.
The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries further recommended that Project Chimps should “Prioritize the development of standard operating procedures that focus on issues such as health assessment, body condition scoring, monthly weight monitoring and fecal collection.”
Translated into simple English, this means that Project Chimps was told to do more to assess chimpanzee health than just looking around to make sure none are in rigor mortis.
The Animal Welfare Act stipulates that “Nonhuman primates that have or are suspected of having a contagious disease must be isolated from healthy animals in the colony as directed by the attending veterinarian. If an entire group of nonhuman primates is known to have or believed to be exposed to an infectious agent, the group may be kept intact during diagnosis, treatment, and control.”
Detecting and responding to the presence of contagious disease would appear to require “health assessment, body condition scoring, monthly weight monitoring and fecal collection.”
Recommendations re behavior
The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries further recommended that Project Chimps should “Implement a planned schedule for providing physical enrichment items to ensure the rotation of those items” and “Fill a position that focuses on behavioral needs and/or enrichment for the chimpanzees.”
Says the Animal Welfare Act, “Dealers, exhibitors, and research facilities must develop, document, and follow an appropriate plan for environment enhancement adequate to promote the psychological well-being of nonhuman primates. The plan must be in accordance with the currently accepted professional standards as cited in appropriate professional journals or reference guides, and as directed by the attending veterinarian.”
The Animal Welfare Act goes on to spell out just what is required in 695 words, covering social grouping, addressing aggressive behavior, and environmental enrichment, among other relevant topics.
Of course Project Chimps is not a dealer, exhibitor, or research facility in the usual senses of the terms. But it is licensed by the USDA as an exhibitor. Animal advocates, including donors to Project Chimps and the Humane Society of the U.S., might reasonably expect that a sanctuary should meet significantly higher standards than the minimum required of dealers, exhibitors, and research facilities.
Two safety recommendations
The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries also made two safety recommendations, one to reduce the risk of injury to chimpanzees, the other to reduce the risk of injury to staff.
For the safety of chimps, GFAS said, as mentioned by Conlee to Moss, Project Chimps should “Prioritize the addition of certain features of the already-planned installation of new climbing structures, including low platforms,” to minimize the chances of injurious falls.
For the safety of humans, GFAS recommended that Project Chimps should “Ensure a trained spotter is present and observing when another trained staff member enters the zone closest to the chimpanzee enclosure.”
This has been standard practice at zoos, laboratories, on theatrical and film sets, and at properly managed sanctuaries, for as long as chimpanzees have been held in captivity.
How do higher expectations harm chimps?
Scolded Kathleen Conlee, concluding her letter to Donny Moss, “Your actions are not only harming the chimpanzees at Project Chimps and Second Chance Chimpanzee Refuge Liberia, but the hundreds of chimpanzees in laboratories waiting for their chance at sanctuary retirement.”
Conlee did not explain how expecting a sanctuary should do more than just meet the Animal Welfare Act standards might harm chimpanzees anywhere.
Her language, however, recalled that of 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.
Wrote Wagman, “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. 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.”
Not only “internal investigations,” however, but also the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries investigation had already been completed long before Donny Moss posted anything about Project Chimps to Their Turn.
The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries recommended, in gist, that Project Chimps should comply with the Animal Welfare Act.
Persons reporting suspected violations of the Animal Welfare Act are protected by federal legislation stipulating that “whistleblowers are free to disclose lawfully whatever information supports a reasonable belief” that the Act has been violated. Federal law further affirms that, “Institutions have a duty not to tolerate or engage in retaliation against good-faith whistleblowers.”
1985 amendments came too late for Nim
Had Nim Chimpsky been protected by the 1985 Animal Welfare Act amendments, and had would-be whistleblowers been protected as well, his life might have been considerably different.
Taken from his mother at the University of Oklahoma in 1973, when he was three days old, and sent to Columbia University as part of an experiment to see if chimps could learn sign language, Nim was raised in a human household, as Project Nim documents. Removed from his original home with humans to a Long Island estate owned by Columbia University, after becoming too dangerous to remain among the family, Nim mastered between 125 and 300 signs by 1977, depending on who did the counting, but also severely injured two of his female caretakers and bit several of the men who assisted them.
Project director Herbert S. Terrace, who had conspicuously enjoyed the limelight when the Nim experiment was acclaimed as successful, quietly returned Nim to the Institute for Primate Studies.
Black Beauty Ranch
The Institute for Primate Studies in 1983 sold Nim to the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine & Surgery In Primates (LEMSIP), owned by New York University, for use in hepatitis research.
Alerted by Ingersoll, Nim’s caretaker at the Institute for Primate Studies, Fund for Animals founder Cleveland Amory prevailed upon LEMSIP to instead sell Nim to the Fund for $7,500. Nim was then retired to the Black Beauty Ranch sanctuary, which at the time had kept only hoofed animals.
Initially alone, Nim for a time had a companion at the Black Beauty Ranch, a female chimp named Sally, but suffered for years, alone again, after her death.
Companions arrived at last after LEMSIP was closed in 1996. Nim, however, died at age 26 in 2000.
Studies raised awareness of apes’ ability to suffer
In the interim, Thomas Sebeok (1920-2001), a longtime Indiana University professor of semiotics, the study of signs and symbols, published Speaking of Apes (1979). Speaking of Apes debunked a decade of reported successes in teaching great apes such as the chimpanzee Washoe, as well as Nim, and the gorilla Koko, among others, to communicate in sign language.
Speaking of Apes appeared just as the biomedical research community was becoming nervous about the growth of the animal rights movement, and was instrumental in terminating federal funding for language research involving apes.
Regardless of the scientific validity of any of the reported findings from the language studies, publicity about the accomplishments of Washoe, Nim, Koko, and other apes used in the studies tended to raise public awareness of their sentience and ability to suffer.
The publicity also made stars of researchers Allen and Beatrix Gardner, who initiated the Washoe experiments in 1967; Roger and Deborah Fouts, who took over the Washoe project in 1982; Herbert S. Terrace, who directed the Nim studies; and Francine “Penny” Patterson, who studied Koko.
Terrace shocked the rest of the apes-and-language research community by siding with Sebeok.
While Roger and Deborah Fouts founded Friends of Washoe as a nonprofit umbrella to continue funding their work, and Patterson formed the Gorilla Foundation to fund hers, other “talking” primates disappeared into the Regional Primate Research Center inventories maintained by the National Institutes of Health. Most are believed to have perished in experiments long before the NIH, under pressure from Congress, began dispersing chimpanzees and other primates to retirement at sanctuaries.
Terrace, to this day, is still defensive of his use and disposal of Nim, and of his alleged exploitation, including sexual exploitation, of Nim’s female caretakers, one of whom was just 17 years old. His 2019 book Why Chimpanzees Can’t Learn Language and Only Humans Can, includes a dismissal of Project Nim as “mainly an ad hominem attack” on himself.
The Humane Society of the U.S., which absorbed the Fund for Animals in 2005, seven years after Amory died, apparently also had a negative response to Project Nim. Ingersoll told ANIMALS 24-7 that HSUS lawyers sensitive about criticism of the Black Beauty Ranch sought unsuccessfully to prevent the Project Nim premier at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. The film went on to win multiple honors, including Best Documentary at the 65th British Academy Film Awards.
Quality of life
Ingersoll argues that the animal advocacy community, forty years after the Nim episode, should understand the importance of quality of life in retiring primates.
Merely getting retired chimpanzees and other nonhuman primates out of laboratories is not enough, Ingersoll explains to anyone who will listen, if the sanctuaries they go to cannot give them back at least a semblance of a normal ape or monkey life––and what is most needed at Project Chimps and other sanctuaries, Ingersoll told ANIMALS 24-7 at length, is not so much more money as it is a better understanding of the needs and nature of the animals they are keeping.