Defamation case settled, defendants vow to press on for sanctuary improvements
BLUE RIDGE, Georgia––In fewer than 20 terse words, the Project Chimps sanctuary defamation lawsuit against former chimpanzee caregivers and whistleblowers Crystal Alba and Lindsay Vanderhooght ended on August 14, 2020:
“Plaintiff Project Chimps Inc.,” said the legal paperwork, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Gainesville Division, “hereby dismisses this matter with prejudice, with each side bearing its/their fees and costs.”
The case “had been dropped in Georgia state court a few weeks ago and immediately refiled in federal court,” an informed source told ANIMALS 24-7.
“Humane Society of the U.S. is the driving force”
“We should say to be accurate that Project Chimps dropped their lawsuit,” the informed source continued, “but the Humane Society of the U.S. is the driving force behind Project Chimps,” as ANIMALS 24-7 detailed on June 23, 2020 in Why has Project Chimps gone ape$#!T over ex-staff complaints?
IRS Form 990 filings show that the Humane Society of the U.S. transferred $2,566,145 in cash to Project Chimps, issued $1,008,979 in program grants to Project Chimps, and paid $106,783 in salaries for Project Chimps-related work.
Project Chimps operates on an annual budget of about $3 million, according to IRS Form 990.
Alba and Vanderhooght, along with 11 other current and former Project Chimps staff whose complaints were anonymous, in January 2020 made public on a web page––HelpTheChimps.org––a list of complaints about conditions at the sanctuary.
Confirmation by Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries
Most of those complaints were subsequently confirmed by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, 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.
Prior to the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries’ inspection visit, some of the whistleblowers’ complaints had allegedly gone unaddressed, or ineffectively addressed, since soon after Project Chimps opened in 2016 on a portion of the 236-acre former Dewar Wildlife Trust gorilla sanctuary.
The Dewar Wildlife Trust had from 1997 to 2015 housed just three gorillas. The site was hastily repurposed to house 78 chimpanzees formerly kept by the New Iberia Research Center, managed by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Concern about publicity
An eventual Project Chimps population of 200 chimpanzees retired from laboratories was anticipated, according to plans announced on May 4, 2016 by then-HSUS president Wayne Pacelle, and apparently still is, an email to Project Chimps staff from board president Bruce Wagman indicated on January 30, 2020.
Wagman, a San Francisco lawyer, expressed concern that publicity over the alleged deficiencies at Project Chimps might interfere with obtaining additional chimps from laboratories.
The lawsuit against Alba and Vanderhooght was dropped just hours before New York City film maker and Their Turn blogger Donny Moss had pledged to throw a second sidewalk demonstration at Humane Society of the United States board member Brad Jakeman outside of his life partner Ryland Hilbert’s store, Ryland Life Equipment, in Sag Harbor, on Long Island.
Moss previously led a demonstration outside the store on July 25, 2020.
Anna West, HSUS senior director of media relations, told Easthampton Press reporter Kitty Merrill that Moss’s demonstration was “misguided.”
Investigation of Jakeman’s background, however, suggests that attracting his attention to the lawsuit against Alba and Vanderhooght may have changed the entire momentum and direction of the issue.
As a board member since October 2018 of Reporters Without Borders, self-described as “an international non-profit, non-governmental organization based in Paris, France, that conducts political advocacy on issues relating to freedom of information and freedom of the press,” Jakeman may be presumed to have little use for lawsuits against whistleblowers.
Having made his multi-millions as a marketing advisor to major corporations, both in the U.S. and worldwide, Jakeman is also known for advising clients to address problems instead of trying to hide from them.
Defending the HSUS brand
“It used to be brands had to make sure that they weren’t doing any harm,” Jakeman told Carolyn Hadlock, principal and executive creative director at the Young & Laramore advertising agency, in an interview published by Medium on November 3, 2019.
“That was the bar,” Jakeman continued. “Now the bar is much higher. People are looking to make sure that your company is actually having a net positive impact on society, on the environment and so on. They are much more attuned to discrepancies in what you say, what you do, and who you are than they ever have been before.
“I counsel brands never to develop a marketing culture where they say: ‘We’re going to do this, that and the other to make sure that a brand crisis never happens to us,’ Jakeman said.
“Because it will. Given the complexity of publishing platforms, the divided nature of society, and the online-enabled voice that everybody has, every brand is three seconds away from a faux pas.
“Don’t go after people who oppose you”
“The phrase I encourage marketers to think more about,” Jakeman explained, “is ‘What are we going to do if it happens to us? What is our plan, how will we manage that? What is the process, what is the messaging?’
“Something happens that causes society or factions within society to have a negative response,” Jakeman told Hadlock. “Brands tend to want to make it go away, as opposed to entering the dialogue. And entering the dialogue is fraught with many dangers, don’t get me wrong. One of which is that it continues the news cycle. Brands have an opportunity to either help write the conclusion or allow it to be written by somebody else.
“My recommendation is, don’t go after the people who oppose you,” Jakeman concluded.
“You can and should do better, HSUS.”
While whatever Jakeman may have said to Project Chimps president Bruce Wagman, Humane Society of the U.S. president Kitty Block, and others in both organizations percolated after the July 25, 2020 demonstration, primatologist Robert “Bob” Ingersoll on August 11, 2020 led a demonstration outside the Nob Hill, San Francisco home of a second HSUS board member, Susan Atherton.
Atherton, according to a biography posted by the San Francisco SPCA, for which she is also a board member, “held executive management positions in the enterprise software and cloud computing industries for 25 years (1977‐2004).”
But Ingersoll was unimpressed, posting to Facebook above a photo of Atherton, “That’s a leather purse made by some famous designer which I’m told cost some crazy amount of $$$. That person Susan Atherton sporting it co-chairs the board at HSUS and has pledged to be ‘kind’ to all animals. I’m wondering if there is an exception at HSUS in their mission statement or by-laws that exempts animals skins used in those expensive bags. I believe there is a word for this behavior, and I think its ‘hypocrites.’ You can and should do better, HSUS. If not we will continue to raise our voices.”
“We’ve had to spend over $20,000”
Donnie Moss soon amplified the Ingersoll statement.
Three days after that, the lawsuit against Alba and Vanderhooght was over.
“Happy news!” posted Alba to Facebook. “We’re so grateful to the protesters, activists (especially the incomparable Donny Moss), vets, primatologists, and fellow whistleblowers who have been unwavering in their support in so many ways. Once we finish paying our attorneys and put this chapter behind us, we’ll be free to continue speaking out and seeking reform at the sanctuary.
“We’ve had to spend over $20,000 to see this through,” Alba said, mostly raised from supporters rallied by Moss and others, “and I can’t imagine how much Project Chimps and HSUS spent pursuing legal action when that money could have been used to improve conditions for the chimps.
“This whole thing was a huge blow to our mental health,” Alba acknowledged, “but we’re ready to move forward and continue advocating for our chimpanzee friends without a lawsuit hanging over us.”
“Our determination hasn’t withered”
Posted Vanderhooght, “Please know that just because the lawsuit has been dropped, our determination hasn’t withered one bit. We will continue to do everything in our power to advocate, educate, and shout from the rooftops about what the chimps deserve. If anything, having the lawsuit settled and over just opens up new doors and opportunities for us to push forward. We’re ready to continue spreading the word and fighting for tangible changes to be made at Project Chimps.
“It’s on all of us to continue pushing forward, now more than ever,” Vanderhooght emphasized, “to hold Project Chimps accountable and to make sure they uphold the promises they made to the chimps in their care.
“Project Chimps and HSUS will never admit that public pressure was the reason they’ve made any changes at the sanctuary,” Vanderhooght added, “even when it is clear that it was. We have to accept that any changes made to improve the care of the chimps are good, whether our voices receive credit for it or not. At the end of the day, it’s the chimps who are living this day in and out and it’s their care that must be improved.”
Donny Moss: “I’ve witnessed similar abuses”
Donny Moss, whose involvement appears to have turned the tide for Alba and Vanderhoogt, became aware of the case through a GoFundMe appeal posted by Vanderhoogt on June 5, 2020, seeking help with the cost of their legal defense.
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.
Like Project Chimps, the Second Chance Chimpanzee Refuge is an affiliate of HSUS, via the HSUS subsidiary Humane Society International.
“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.”
“HSUS dismissed my concerns”
Moss led the campaign that in 2015 created the Liberian sanctuary, with a $6 million endowment, to house 66 chimpanzee survivors of research done by the New York Blood Center.
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,” since the founding management team were replaced in 2017, “with my own eyes.”
“Thank you, Crystal Alba and Lindsay Vanderhoogt”
Said Moss, four days before the settlement of the defamation lawsuit against Alba and Vanderhoogt was dropped, “The animal rights community cannot stand by silently while HSUS, an extraordinarily wealthy organization with over $200 million in assets, engages in intimidation tactics typically employed by big animal agriculture, to silence and bankrupt whistleblowers whose only motive is to protect animals.
“If we don’t fight back against HSUS and support the whistleblowers, then we not only enable this organization’s abusive behavior toward people and animals, but we also put other animals in jeopardy because people who witness abuse at other institutions will be afraid to come forward out of fear of HSUS-style retaliation. In fact, this is already happening.
“Thank you, Crystal Alba and Lindsay Vanderhoogt,” Moss finished, “for doing the right thing by coming forward. The lives of the chimps at Project Chimps whose plight is now in the public spotlight will assuredly improve as a result of your courage.”