Seeks “peace with honor” & withdrawal after whistleblower campaign
BLUE RIDGE, Georgia––The Humane Society of the United States on January 10, 2022 committed $20 million––at least in a media release––to making material improvements at the HSUS-funded Project Chimps sanctuary in Blue Ridge, Georgia.
The HSUS pledge, observed Their Turn founder Donny Moss of New York City, “comes 1.5 years after the activist groups Chimps Deserve Better, Progress for Science, and Their Turn launched a national pressure campaign calling for improved living conditions, enhanced veterinary care, and increased outdoor access” at Project Chimps.
“The campaign is by no means over”
The pledge also comes six months after Project Chimps staff and volunteers spent the weekend of July 17-18, 2021 painting scenic backdrops on about a third of the chimpanzee housing, a gesture which impressed neither the resident chimps nor the Project Chimps critics.
ANIMALS 24-7 noted at the time that the partial paint job could not be called a “whitewash” because colors were used.
“It’s a start,” Moss told ANIMALS 24-7, “though I wish they had been motivated by the plight of the chimps instead of a fear of protests at the homes of HSUS board members,” a tactic campaigners used outside board members’ homes in New York City, on Long Island, in San Francisco, in Los Angeles, and in Atlanta.
“The campaign is by no means over,” Moss said, “but we’ve hit the pause button on the in-person protests as a show of good faith.”
$5 million grant up front
Acknowledged the HSUS media release, “The Humane Society of the United States has for years been the biggest supporter and donor to Project Chimps, a Georgia sanctuary that cares for chimpanzees retired from the New Iberia Research Center,” a federally funded laboratory in Louisiana.
“The sanctuary has always planned to expand living spaces for its animals,” the media release continued. “After more than five years of providing significant yearly financial and administrative support,” amounting to more than $1.5 million a year according to recent filings of IRS Form 990, “in 2022 HSUS will amplify its commitment to Project Chimps, pledging an additional $20 million.
“This pledge includes an initial grant of $5 million that will serve as a major kickstart toward the total funds needed for the sanctuary’s second large outdoor habitat and housing construction,” HSUS said.
The first round of outdoor habitat and housing construction came in 2016, when the former Dewar Wildlife Trust sanctuary for three gorillas was converted to house chimpanzees retired from biomedical research use.
Moving it toward full independence
The $5 million grant, HSUS added, is to be followed by “up to an additional $15 million over the next 10 years, to support the sanctuary’s operational needs and help it move toward becoming fully independent.”
The language is reminiscent of U.S. government media releases announcing funding commitments to Afghanistan prior to the 2021 military withdrawal from further support of what had become a huge political liability for four successive presidential administrations.
“The pledge will also help support Project Chimps in its long-term vision to bring in more of the chimpanzees who are currently still awaiting transport out of the New Iberia Research Center,” the HSUS media release finished.
“We thank each & every dedicated activist”
Wrote Project Chimps whistleblowers Crystal Alba and Lindsay Vanderhoogt in a statement posted to the Their Turn web site, “We thank each and every dedicated activist who participated online and in person to help us make change possible.
“We appreciate that HSUS is acknowledging its responsibility to Project Chimps and its plans to donate a significant amount of money to improve the sanctuary. With cautious optimism, we hope these funds will be used to upgrade the facilities and enhance care practices that impact the chimps’ day-to-day lives.
“While new habitat space is greatly needed,” Alba and Vanderhoogt acknowledged, “it cannot be created overnight. We would like to know how Project Chimps will provide the existing chimpanzees with increased access to the current habitat in the weeks and months that lie ahead. We would also like to know if and how HSUS’s donation will impact the quality of vet care and facilities at the sanctuary.
“Money can solve many, but not all, problems at Project Chimps,” Alba and Vanderhoogt said. “We are concerned that foundational and cultural issues will continue to compromise the sanctuary. Inexperienced management, a toxic workplace environment, and crowded conditions for resident chimpanzees cannot be fixed with money.”
“We’d like to see a change in culture”
Added Vanderhoogt, “The infusion of funds will help improve the facilities, if spent wisely. But we’d also like to see a change in culture where management prioritizes the welfare of the chimpanzees in the decision-making process.”
Vanderhoogt, hired when Project Chimps opened in 2016, left in February 2018. Alba, a second former Project Chimps employee who was critical of the facilities and management, remained on staff until March 2020.
By then, Vanderhoogt, Alba, and many other current and former Project Chimps staff had already taken a long list of complaints about the chimpanzee care at Project Chimps to the Project Chimps management and board.
PETA & Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries
Frustrated when corrective action did not promptly follow, Vanderhoogt and Alba turned to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in January 2020.
PETA in turn took the complaints to both the Project Chimps board of directors and to HSUS.
When neither was responsive, PETA took the dossier to the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS), of which Project Chimps is an accredited member.
The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries was formed in 2007 with the active direction of HSUS and funding from HSUS, which continues. At least five of the 19 currently listed Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries board & staff have longtime close associations with HSUS and HSUS subsidiaries.
This made the ensuing GFAS visit to Project Chimps essentially a matter of one arm of HSUS inspecting another––but GFAS nonetheless agreed in gist with many of the whistleblower complaints. Project Chimps eventually accepted seven GFAS recommendations.
Many of the remaining complaints appear to have resulted from complications of the rapid conversion of the six-acre animal housing compound on 236-acre property to house chimpanzees, under deadline pressure to accommodate the first 78 chimpanzees to arrive, and eventually to accommodate more than 200, according to plans announced by then-HSUS president Wayne Pacelle on May 4, 2016.
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, expressed concern that publicity about deficiencies at the sanctuary might result in the New Iberia Research Center withdrawing from the agreement it had reached to retire the chimps remaining there to Project Chimps.
Soon thereafter Project Chimps sued Alba and Vanderhoogt over a web site––HelpTheChimps.org––they had posted months earlier to little evident notice beyond the relatively small number of people actually involved with the sanctuary.
Donny Moss noticed
Spending more than $20,000 to defend themselves, Alba and Vanderhoogt on June 5, 2020 sought help with their legal fees in A GoFundMe appeal.
The GoFundMe appeal attracted the notice of Donny Moss, who had his own questions about the management of the Second Chance Chimpanzee Refuge in Liberia, an affiliate of HSUS via the HSUS subsidiary Humane Society International.
Moss on June 11, 2020 amplified the GoFundMe appeal in depth and detail.
“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.
“I believe the whistleblowers”
“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.
“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.
Fired for taking in orphaned chimps
“The Desmonds quickly improved the quality of life of the abandoned chimps,” Moss described, as an eyewitness. 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.”
“Took a principled stand”
HSUS and the HSUS subsidiary Humane Society International had reason to want to avoid becoming 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 75 orphaned chimpanzees.
Project Chimps dropped lawsuit
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. In the three years [now 4.5 years] since receiving the $6 million settlement, HSUS had not built even one structure, and the chimpanzees – off of whom they continue to raise money – are paying the price.”
“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.”
Under public pressure generated by Chimps Deserve Better, Progress for Science, and Their Turn, along with ANIMALS 24-7 coverage of their efforts, Project Chimps on August 14, 2020 dropped the lawsuit against Alba and Vanderhoogt, but another year and a half passed before HSUS and Project Chimps substantively responded to their concerns.