Great Apes Get Second Chance
Each of us is drawn to specific wild species. When we see or think about them, something just clicks. My preferred creatures are dolphins, wolves, and the great apes. Of course, I could add deer, sea turtles, and elephants. But the first three are the ones I have often thought I might work with, in another life. I would return to school to become a wildlife veterinarian, an animal psychologist or a primatologist.
I don't plan to do that, but I continue to seek animals out to study and write about. Over the last four months, I have been extremely fortunate to become slightly acquainted with some close relatives -- close in both proximity and in the biological sense. These are 15 chimpanzees that live in a retirement facility just outside Montreal, less than two hours from my home. Let me introduce a few of them to you.
Rachel, 18, used to live in Florida. She was given bubble baths and dressed in frilly frocks until she was almost three, when her "family" turned their increasingly large and active pet over to a research laboratory.
Sue Ellen started out as an entertainer. Her teeth were knocked out, probably with a crow bar, to keep her from being "dangerous." After 15 years in the biz, Sue Ellen was sold to the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP) at New York University in Tuxedo, New York. There she endured 40 liver, three rectal and four lymph-node biopsies in the interest of biomedical research.
Billy Jo, also a veteran of the entertainment business, ended up at the same lab. Sedated more than 289 times, usually by tranquilizer-dart-throwing men, using, Ketamine -- a hallucinogen currently popular on the streets.
Annie was taken all the way from Africa to perform in a circus. Then she ended up as a "breeder" at LEMSIP, where she lived for 21 years. She was the first chimpanzee to be artificially inseminated at the facility, and in the process, suffered wounds to her genitals, extreme weight loss and mouth ulcers.
These four chimpanzees are now fortunate to live at the Fauna Foundation, a nonprofit animal sanctuary established in 1997 just south of Montreal. Fauna is home to 15 formerly incarcerated chimpanzees and dozens of other animals rescued from farms, slaughterhouses and zoos.
Eight of the 15 chimpanzees housed at Fauna were used in HIV studies. All the other Fauna chimpanzees -- except Annie -- were used in hepatitis trials.
The animal-rights activists who founded Fauna want to make it up to these animals, which they see as heroes, not horror stories. They have replaced their cramped cages with private rooms, the chimpanzee chow with fresh fruits and vegetables, in hopes that forgiveness is one of the many emotions people and primate have in common.
Located on a back road in rural Carignan, with no entrance sign, Fauna Foundation was founded by veterinarian Dr. Richard Allan and his partner Gloria Grow, a groomer and animal-rights activist. The Canadian couple had been inspired by a visit toThe Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI) in Ellensburg, Washington, cares for five chimpanzees that have learned to communicate using sign language.
Grow and Allan decided to build a sanctuary for chimpanzees on the other side of North America, on the 41-hectare piece of land they own in Quebec. Grow got advice from chimpanzee expert Roger Fouts, a psychology professor and co-director of CHCI. She also met with James Mahoney, a research veterinarian at LEMSIP and author of Saving Molly, a memoir about his work with the chimpanzees and the subsequent change in his attitudes regarding animal rights.
The first group of retiring research chimpanzees came to Quebec from LEMSIP in September 1997, in a small trailer that transported them across the Canadian border. The second followed a month later. Most of the primates were thin and hairless. Several had serious diarrhea because of dietary changes. Most were fearful. They fought and screamed when they first arrived.
They found kindred souls, human ones, who are working to fulfill a four-fold mission. To provide a kind of retirement home for biomedical research chimpanzees; to offer sanctuary for unwanted and abused farm animals; to spearhead wetland restoration of the area; and to deliver educational programs about all of the above. The organization, not surprisingly, is opposed to any form of animal research.
Besides Allan, Grow and several family members, Fauna runs with the help of approximately 20 volunteers, only six or seven of who work with the chimpanzees on a regular basis. The organization's advisory board includes such primate heavyweights as Fouts and his wife Deborah. Jane Goodall, who has worked for 40 years with and for chimpanzees in Tanzania, is on the list. Her institute donated money to build an enclosure for the Fauna chimps.
Grow and Allan spent more than $200,000 of their own money to get Fauna started, and continues to rely on about 600 like-minded private donors to keep the primate project going. Some chimpanzees are "provided with an endowment to take care of them after their life in research," but not those at Fauna, explained Fauna staff member Tony Smith.
And taking care of 15 full-grown adults is not cheap. Last year, Fauna received $20,000 in donations -- a drop in the bucket considering each chimp costs about $7300 per year to care for. "We have no veterinary costs. That's the figure for food, housing, electricity and enrichment activities," explained Grow. Furthermore, these animal charges may end up outliving their caretakers -- Annie is almost 42, and could be around for another 20 years.
Many chimpanzees residing in North America are not nearly as fortunate. Of approximately 2000 chimpanzees currently living in the United States, about 1700 are in research laboratories, while the others are in zoos, private hands or used for entertainment, according to the Animal Research Issues, a publication of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). In the 1960s and '70s, many were used by the U.S. Air Force for flight-testing. Even in zoos or roadside attractions, conditions are generally not good for chimpanzees, according to Grow.
"It's not only laboratories that have terrible conditions," she says. "At least there, they have a caregiver." She visited one place where the animals were housed in caves underground.
Biomedical research is not carried out in Canada, but it is not prohibited, either, according to Fauna's Tony Smith who is also co-founder of Personhood and Great Ape Standing a nonprofit organization that advocates legal rights for primates. In the U.S., the biomedical lab chimpanzees are used primarily in infectious-disease testing, AIDS research, spinal and brain injury research, testing for toxicity, hepatitis and respiratory diseases.
Approximately 100 chimpanzees have already been liberated and now live in sanctuaries. Fauna Foundation is one of about a half-dozen active retirement homes in North America -- and the only one in Canada.
One of the reasons the treatment of chimpanzees is such a complex and emotionally charged issue is that the animals are so similar -- in behavior and genetics -- to humans. Chimpanzees are our closest relatives, sharing 98.4 percent of human DNA. Primatologist and author Roger Fouts calls them our "next of kin."
At the turn of the 20th century, between two and five million chimpanzees lived on the African continent, according to Deborah Fouts. Today the chimpanzee is endangered, with a total population of approximately 175,000. Reasons include loss of habitat, the bush meat trade -- chimp meat is fashionable in many cities -- and the illegal capture and selling of chimpanzees to laboratories, circuses, zoos and private owners around the world.
Granted, it's not the wilds of Africa, but the Fauna Foundation is doing its part for primates in Canada. Several of the resident chimpanzees seem much happier, healthier and more relaxed now than when they arrived. Billy Jo still cannot bear to have strangers grouped in front of him, but amongst the apes at Fauna, he is the most sociable with humans and spends less time in his room. Annie has become quite trusting and friendly, considering the traumas she has endured.
There's no doubt their quality of life is vastly improved. "Now, they've got their hair back. They relax, sleep and enjoy their food," said Aaryn Ketter, a Fauna volunteer. "We try to make the place as interesting as possible. We try to give them choices in their daily lives. They have access to the outside. Still, it's not enough. We know this."
As Smith explained, "The most important point to underscore is the need to ensure the future protection of all of the farm's animals. All of the animals have, at some point in their lives, served humans. It is our duty to provide a safe and peaceful home for them for the remainder of their lives."
For more information on the Fauna Foundation, visit www.faunafoundation.org.
Since the writing of this article, one of the chimpanzees, Pablo, died the week of October 12, 2001 -- at Fauna Foundation outside Montreal -- from pneumonia. All the others (both chimpanzee and human friends) are still grieving...
Deborah Straw of Burlington, Vermont, has been a published writer for 25 years.