Editor’s note 5/30/17: GOOD NEWS! The HSUS and the New York Blood Center have announced an agreement to provide long-term sanctuary for the Liberian chimpanzees. Read the update
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?”
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.”
The details of those years are contained in folders grown soft with age, musty from rainy seasons past. The staples on the forms are rusted, the papers tattered. But the misery, carefully recorded in ballpoint by varying hands carries fresh across the decades: individual chimps darted and sedated 300 or 400 or 500 times, many undergoing 50 to more than 100 liver biopsies, constantly moved from cage to cage; males wounded again and again in fights with cage mates; frequent illness, slow-healing wounds, babies who died of colds. The numbers on the folders give an idea of the scale of the lives sacrificed for human health. There were 475 research chimps—the numbers go up that far. Only 45 from the research period survive.
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.