February 16, 2017
These former research chimps survived wars, hunger and abandonment. This is their story.
by Karen E. Lange
The chimpanzees live on six islands, near where a tangle of rivers meets the fierce waves of Liberia’s Atlantic coast. Every day, they wait by the water as a boat carrying three men glides up to the islands’ beaches, bringing provisions—coconuts and corn and plantains, tubs of chopped papayas and mangos and cucumbers, bunches of potato greens. Lookout chimps hoot the arrival from treetops, calling the others from the mangroves, running along the shore to follow the humans in. Within minutes, groups of 10 to 12 chimps assemble for their daily meal. A few sway back and forth with excitement.
Because their muscles are denser than humans’, chimps generally do not swim. Scientists elsewhere in West Africa say the chimps they study are terrified of water, clinging to a branch even when drinking from a water source no deeper than a puddle. The island chimps, though, have learned the shallows off the beaches are safe. They wade out to greet the boat like delegations.
Once the boat is anchored, two of the men step into the brown water. They wear scrubs the New York Blood Center provided to lab staff from 1974 to 2004, when the chimps were test subjects at a research center called VILAB II, near Liberia’s main airport. As the chimps' infected blood made them unusable for certain tests, they were placed on these islands. When researchers moved on to different diseases, chimps were taken back to the lab.
At that time, the boat’s arrival was a cause for fear: It could mean chimps would be darted for sedation and removed. Now the boat’s appearance means only food, proffered from the hands of familiar caregivers. Hungry chimps approach with outstretched arms and expectant faces, as if to say, “What are you waiting for?”
One man delivers birth control for females and placebos for males directly into the palms of individual hands—the pills concealed in sticky treats. Then he tosses coconuts and ears of corn, lobbing the food over chimps’ heads so they will return to shore, showering the beach with peanuts or popcorn. The second man in the water guards the boat, making sure the chimps don’t get too close—they’re still wild animals and could easily overpower a person. Onboard the boat, Joseph Thomas, manager of animal care, takes a head count and keeps watch so the men aren’t outmaneuvered.
When all the food is gone, the chimps fall back to the shore, carrying their bounty in their hands and “pockets”—where their torsos meet their legs—grunting in satisfaction. One or two wash the food in river water before consuming it; others tear into coconuts (at least one male frequently flings the husks back at the boat). Inevitably, a bully, usually a chimp angling to be the dominant male, snatches another chimp’s food and runs off. The grunts and hoots rise to screams as the victim gives chase, or drop to soft, hurt crying if the chimp isn’t bold enough to pursue. The caregivers follow the goings-on like the latest installment of a soap opera.
“Samantha!” calls Thomas, who began working at VILAB in the 1970s. A chimp sitting on the beach, hair graying, her back toward him, stops collecting popcorn and turns to meet his eyes. Thomas smiles. “She knows me well.” At 42, Samantha is the oldest of the former research chimps—a witness, with Thomas, to all that took place.
Together, the chimps and the team of Liberians who cared for them made it through a coup and military rule, through a rigged election and attempted coup, through massacres and civil wars, through hunger and sickness. And they survived the weeks after March 5, 2015, when the New York Blood Center cut funding for food and supplies and wages. The very reason that the blood center sought out the chimps as test subjects—their similarity to humans—in the end saved them, says Jenny Desmond, director of the HSUS/HSI project to care for the chimps (her husband, veterinarian Jim Desmond, serves as medical and technical expert). Other primates might have given up, their health deteriorating until they died, says Jenny Desmond. But chimps, like humans, are survivors.
“Their resilience is amazing,” she says. “They can be in horrible condition—emaciated and dehydrated. They won’t give up.”
Liberia is one of the world’s poorest countries, and Liberians are generally not sentimental about animals. Many look upon wildlife mainly as a source of food.
And yet, the first time he really had a chance to reflect on what could have happened after the blood center cut funding, Thomas sobbed. Because it all could have been over: the chimps dead, their caregivers jobless and scattered. After 40 years.
When word of the blood center’s decision reached him, Thomas could find only enough fruit to feed the chimps one more day. Three days passed, then he took all the money he had—$25—and bought as much food as he could. Cakpa Fahn, the team’s mechanic, brought bags of potato greens. Driver John Cooper donated a tub of bananas.
Thomas headed to the dock with 10 gallons of water and what he feared would be the last food to reach the chimps. He knew what would happen next. Even if the system that provided fresh water had been working (it wasn’t), the islands were too small for the chimps to live off what they foraged. Fierce thirst would force the chimps to drink from the salty river. There would be mounting hunger, stress as the strong stole from the weak, fighting and wounds and infections, malnutrition, sickness. Slowly, every one of them would die, waiting for a boat that never came.
Thomas was upset, and he looked it. As it happens, the Liberian Institute for Biomedical Research, which once housed VILAB, now hosts scientists developing an Ebola vaccine (using human volunteers). One of those researchers, from the National Institutes of Health, saw Thomas’ face and asked what was wrong. Her concern led to Dr. Brian Hare of Duke University, who reached out to Kathleen Conlee, HSUS vice president of animal research issues. Soon, Conlee and Hare were developing an emergency response with a network of primate and great ape experts and advocates. Together they pressured the blood center to honor a promise of lifetime care. When the blood center refused, The HSUS set up a GoFundMe campaign.
This year, The HSUS and HSI are striving to develop a formal partnership with the Liberian government to establish a sanctuary for the former research chimps, as well as chimps confiscated under Liberia’s new wildlife law. Once an agreement is finalized, The HSUS and HSI will launch a bigger fundraising campaign.
In 2015, when Conlee was searching for people to oversee the long-term care of the abandoned chimps, she contacted the Desmonds, then in the midst of considering managing a primate sanctuary in Kenya. The couple flew to Liberia, a country still rebuilding from war and only just declared Ebola-free. What they saw compelled them to accept the position offered by The HSUS. The island chimps were thin and their hair patchy and dull. They met the boat with fear and belligerence, baring their teeth, sometimes throwing rocks or sticks.
“I’ve never seen chimps so desperate,” Jenny says. “It was like seeing babies when they come in [to a sanctuary]—like 63 traumatized orphans.”
Besides the chance to care for the chimps, the Desmonds hoped to eventually bring school children and other Liberians to visit the sanctuary, perhaps inspiring them to protect the 7,000 wild chimps who remain in the country’s rainforest. Jim saw a need for his skills: He would be one of only two or three vets living in Liberia.
And so, with the permission of the Liberian Institute for Biomedical Research, the Desmonds set up a temporary headquarters in buildings formerly used by VILAB. The couple moved into one of the old houses and started to fix the worst of the problems—the shower that offered only a trickle of water, the torn window screens, the erratic power. The HSUS rehired 90 percent of the former VILAB staff: 33 people, many of whom they hope to retrain to care for the chimps.
Immediately, as word spread that the Desmonds were in Liberia, orphaned chimps began to arrive. Soon there were three 3- to 4-year-olds—Portea, Guey and Sweet Pea—spending their days and nights in a large enclosure called the pavilion, which had previously been used to house groups of research chimps before they were sent to the islands. Then there were two 1-year-olds—Rudy and Lucy—spending their nights with the Desmonds and their days with Jenneh Briggs, one of the Liberian caregivers. Some months later, a 1-month-old named Gola arrived. Like the others, she required 24-hour care.
In the wild, infant chimps have constant contact with their mothers—one of the many reasons they should never be kept as pets. Trying to provide that in the unnatural setting of the human world leaves Jenny with just two chimp-free hours each day. The work can be immensely gratifying. The babies, once sad and scared, have turned happy and confident. But caring for them is also draining. “I’m used to having a baby attached to me,” says Jenny. “It never stops.”
Each evening, Jenny puts Rudy and Lucy to bed. She gives the chimps their bottles then plays with them until they fall asleep curled up next to her. They wake each time she tries to leave the room. In the kitchen, Jim is cooking dinner. If Jenny’s lucky, she gets to come out into the living room to eat it. Overnight, Jenny and Jim don’t get much sleep. They’re often up caring for the baby chimps, who don’t wear diapers and are just learning to relieve themselves on the floor, as babies in the wild would, hanging out of the nest.
In the morning, the house is a friendly chaos. There’s Princess, the Desmonds’ longtime dog, who watches over the household. There’s Monkey, the couple’s newly adopted Liberian dog, struggling to find his place in the hierarchy. Easter the chicken wanders in and out, sometimes with a chick. The neighbors’ chickens and dogs invite themselves in. There’s a squirrel in a crate who Jim rescued from men beating it with shovels. Outside in an enclosure, there’s a palm nut vulture named Skulk who will be released when his flight feathers grow back in.
Every day Jenny removes the cushions from the sofa, so they won’t get torn up, and plays a Bollywood song on her laptop for Rudy and Lucy: “Chaiyya Chaiyya.” The two chimps run and climb and pull down whatever’s within reach. Jenny tries to go online but often there’s no Internet access. Jim mops the floor with water and bleach.
After picking up and dropping off chimp babies and caregivers, several days a week Jim goes to his other job overseeing the Liberia office of PREDICT, a USAID-funded project to identify and anticipate emerging diseases such as Ebola. His team is collecting 18,000 blood samples from bats and other possible carriers, releasing animals unharmed. Through his contacts with other nonprofits, he has made a lot of friends. He’s already wrangled four donated pickups for the work with the chimps and is hoping to get an SUV. On Saturdays, instead of resting, he and Jenny take eight expats at a time to visit the chimps on the nearest islands to help raise money. At $50 per person, that’s $400 a week.
“It’s been crazy,” says Jim. “I don’t even know what day it is, because it doesn’t matter.”
On a shelf in the Desmonds’ living room lies a book about apes published in 1993. Inside is a big photo of Briggs—then a caregiver, too—in a white gown pushing three baby chimps in a wheelbarrow. At first glance, it’s cute. “Pampered, but not pets, the easy riders of Liberia enjoy their version of a pram,” reads the caption. But the chimps’ faces are scared and sad. And when Briggs looks at the picture, tears well up in her eyes.
For her, the chimps were like humans, only without the power of speech. They were like her own children. But it was her job to take the baby chimps to the lab for blood drawing. At the lab, because the babies were young enough to be physically restrained rather than sedated, caregivers had to grab their arms and legs and hold them down while they struggled. It was excruciating to watch the lab workers stick the needles in.
“They would miss the vein,” she says. “They would do it sometimes two or three times, until they get the blood. [The babies] would be screaming.”
Today, thanks in part to the work of The HSUS/HSI, all chimpanzees are listed as endangered and can be used in experiments in the United States only if scientists can show this would benefit the conservation of the species. The National Institutes of Health has stopped funding chimp research and ordered all federally owned chimpanzees be retired to sanctuary.
Back in the 1970s, though, when a scientist named Dr. Alfred Prince wanted to develop a low-cost hepatitis B vaccine, the main concern he faced was where to get test subjects. Chimpanzees, close evolutionary relatives to humans, were readily available in West Africa, but under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), chimps could not be exported. So Prince, working for the New York Blood Center, decided to set up a chimpanzee research lab in Liberia. The government established the Liberian Institute for Biomedical Research, and Prince hired a young American, Betsy Brotman, to oversee the work. The lab started to collect chimps, fueling a trade in orphaned infants.
Harry Gilmore, an American hunter who had captured animals for former Liberian President William V.S. Tubman’s private zoo, was sent to gather baby chimps. Fahn, the mechanic, remembers waiting with Gilmore in the forest until a chimpanzee family would appear, then darting young adult chimps to carry back. VILAB also bought chimps from hunters, who killed mothers to get their babies. Samantha arrived at VILAB on Dec. 14, 1976, sold to the lab by a man in a nearby town. She was 1 1/2 years old. Those first arrivals were chained to a jungle gym, where caregivers would sometimes play with them. Staff and visitors used to give them candy and ice cream and bottles of Fanta soda. Some of the orphans bonded with Thomas and the other caregivers. Photos from this time show Brotman carrying baby chimps on her hip or walking them by the hand, smiling. VILAB would hold parties on the front lawn for expats.
In 1979, there were riots in Monrovia over the price of rice, Liberia’s staple food. On April 12, 1980, there was a coup, and the president of Liberia was killed.
But at VILAB, research went on. The biggest change came for the orphan chimps. After several babies hung themselves while unsupervised on the jungle gym, Samantha and the others were moved into small, concrete cages. Some of the chimp-human relationships continued, only now they were limited to contact through the bars. Thomas would bend his head close so Samantha could touch his scalp, in an imitation of grooming. When it was time for Samantha to be sedated, Thomas would call her over to the side of the cage, and she, grateful to be spared the terror of darting, would extend her legs to receive the injections that would knock her out.
Outside VILAB, the military government rigged an election to stay in power and massacred members of ethnic groups it suspected of disloyalty. On Christmas Eve in 1989, rebel fighters invaded from neighboring Côte d’Ivoire. Within six months they had reached the area around VILAB, looting, raping and killing.
News footage shows the strain of life under the rebels: Brotman giving a forced smile to a child soldier with an AK-47 at a waterside checkpoint. As soon as the boat is out of sight, her face turns grim. It was hard for the staff to get food to the islands, where some of the chimps were living. Many of the research chimps were dying, and every time staff left the grounds to search for scarce provisions, they took a risk. Fighters would ask who the food was for, and when the answer was chimps, they would ask why animals should eat rather than them.
In late 1992, the rebels launched an offensive that nearly overran the capital. West African peacekeepers bombed rebel territory to strike back. Brotman’s husband, Brian Garnham, wrote a statement critical of the bombing that was leaked to the BBC. On Jan. 31, 1993, as the peacekeepers and their Liberian allies advanced against the rebels, the war came to VILAB. Soldiers of the interim government arrived and began looting. One kicked in the front door of Garnham’s house and immediately shot him dead.
Fahn and other staff had already fled the country or run into the forest. The remaining staff were just downstairs from where the shooting happened. They heard the gunfire and Brotman screaming. The soldiers rounded up everyone and forced them to march to Monrovia.
Left behind, Samantha and the other chimps were trapped without food or water. Several were shot or stolen by soldiers. After two weeks or more, when the caregivers were allowed to return, about 50 chimps had died. The rest were lying unconscious in their cages, apparently surviving by licking moisture off the bars of their cages. Dehydrated, they had to be revived using IV drips.
When VILAB was finally able to send a boat out to check on the one group of chimps remaining on an island, caregivers found only a single female alive.
Brotman begged the staff to return to care for the surviving chimps. After repeated assurances that VILAB was safe, they did. By 1997, with the main rebel leader, Charles Taylor, elected president, the war was over (though within six years other rebel groups would drive Taylor from power). Research resumed.
Around this time, Samantha began to escape from her cage with her “husband.” It always ended the same way: They were tranquilized and recaptured. Until the day in 2007, when Samantha was retired permanently to an island. She had been tranquilized a total of 345 times, and had undergone 49 liver biopsies. On the day she was set free, Samantha headed straight into the mangroves with other chimps who had already been transferred there. She did not look back. For several weeks, neither she nor the others came to shore when food was dropped off. They built nests in the trees in which to sleep. They “fished” for termites with sticks thrust into the insects’ mounds. They followed the life they had always been meant to—the existence coded for in their DNA.
Since the arrival of The HSUS in 2015, Samantha and the other former research chimps are getting better care than ever—food deliveries every day, a wider variety of fruits and vegetables. As in the past, the baby chimps get colds, but these animals—less stressed and stronger—all live.
Liberia remains a challenging country to work in. One evening, Jim comes home to find that the electrician he sent into Monrovia with money and instructions to restore power they lost the night before is only just returning. Jim lights candles and lanterns, wondering how long it will be before he has to throw out the perishable food the couple assembled from trips to several grocery stores, along with the last doses of rabies vaccine in the country. Jenny, sick with malaria, lies feverish in bed with Rudy and Lucy.
All this with another baby on the way: In a breakthrough, a Liberia Forestry Development Authority officer has seized a young chimp in a remote area and arrested a suspected hunter. Gloria, as the orphan has been named, is expected to arrive any day now on a U.N. flight. It’s wonderful. And it’s overwhelming.
By the next morning, power is restored and Jenny is feeling better. The Desmonds and Thomas visit a piece of land Jim has found for sale near the islands. They get off the boat and walk along a trail locals use for fishing. A man from the community shows them an inlet from the river that will make a natural boundary. All that’s needed so chimp babies can safely spend their days in the forest here is an electric fence and a buffer with no trees. Thomas smiles, satisfied. The Desmonds hold hands like a couple contemplating building a house.
“I don’t want to get my hopes up,” says Jim. “But I’m getting my hopes up.”
Jenny is ecstatic. “I can see chimps climbing around in here! Oh God, I can just picture the babies here!”
A few weeks later, Gloria arrives. Fortunately, she and Gola are natural playmates. They swing on a rope and a knotted curtain in the center of the living room. They wrestle with the dogs. Jenny sneaks time on her computer. If she can get web access, maybe she can send an email. The days pass, and the chimps and the caregivers and the place itself heal, bit by bit. Each morning, Jenny plays “Chaiyya Chaiyya,” as Rudy and Lucy tumble around the house, the misery of their beginnings momentarily forgotten in kinesthetic joy. The song’s mystical words, based on a Sufi poem, rise above the beat. It’s a tale of love: “He whose head is in the shadow of love has heaven under his feet … Under your feet is paradise … walk in the shade (of love).”
Jenny sits tired on the sofa, as the chimps tear about, venturing farther and farther, and the song plays like a prayer. In these moments it all seems possible: to restore the chimps to full, free lives; to reach a future where animals are no longer taken from the wild; to bring, from all the suffering, hope.