New York Blood Center Abandons 66 Chimps Still; Activist Community Rises Up

Update: NYBC Releases Statement on Abandonment of 66 Chimps

In 1974, nearly six thousand miles away, the New York Blood Center began utilizing a colony of chimpanzees for biomedical research. In the beginning, experiments were especially inhumane, as the chimps were infected, used for head trauma studies, and exposed to radiation. Astonishingly, they were also "injected with brain tissue from patients with schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis." Decades went by, during which these animals were also used as lab fodder for the development of treatments for Hepatitis B and C. The research, which generated over $500 million US dollars, appeared to fly subtly under the radar — along with the Liberian chimps  — until now. Recently, a darker story has emerged, leaving animal welfare groups and thousands around the globe horrified. 

Chimpanzees crowding water's edge, thirsty for water. Credit: Agnes Souchal. 

In January of 2015, Barry Greene, the executive director of NYBC, wrote a letter to the head of the Liberian Institute for Biomedical Research, forewarning the cessation of funding in three months time. This was an interesting correspondence, as an agreement between this US Institution and the Government of Liberia stipulated that the NYBC was required to care for these chimps, presumably until their death. Nonetheless, in March of 2015, the NYBC dropped their commitment to provide the chimpanzees with life-long care, making them officially someone else's 'problem.'

As you would imagine, 'only days after the withdrawal of [their] support', the chimpanzees began experiencing distress. Their food was restricted and water supply had to be hand-fed, after the original water delivery system had gone too long unmaintained. Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, wrote Barry Greene and NYBC to say that and more, remarking that the chimpanzees were 'losing weight' and that there might be 'adverse health consequences associated with short and long-term dehydration, including death.' 

If the NYBC wants the role of the villain, it’s playing it very well. Victoria O’Neill, a spokeswoman for the NYBC, stated in an interview with the New York Times that the clinic never had any contractual obligation with Liberia to care for the chimps, and appears to be shifting the blame and responsibility solely onto the shoulders of the Liberian government. Apparently, in their own boo-hoo story, The NYBC incurred millions of dollars worth of costs during their discussions & arbitrations with the government of Liberia over the welfare of the chimps. Betsy Brotman, who headed the NYBC’s chimp research program from 1974-2006, along with Jane Goodall, are amongst the advocates voicing their own opinions; according to Brotman, the NYBC pushed for a chimp-breeding program, which had nothing to do with the Liberian Government. In an agreeable statement, Goodall said the NYBC has a moral obligation to care for these chimps for the remainder of their lives. 

Why the sudden abandonment of so many chimps? Some speculate that the insurgence of the Ebola virus was the perfect distraction for the NYBC to discretely back out of their financial commitment; whilst a statement from James Haggerty of NYBC states that the clinic was only ever helping with the chimpanzees’ care on a “voluntary basis” and made the government of Liberia aware of the short-term care they would provide. A 2005 ASP Bulletin tells another story, however, wherein Dr. Alfred M. Prince states that "NYBC [recognized] its responsibility to provide an endowment to fund the Sanctuary for the lifetime care of the chimpanzees." 

This scenario is made even less palatable, somehow, by the fact that it is a bit of history repeating itself. In 1990, the NYBC's operation boasted 175 chimps total - 75 in the lab and 90 on the islands. After the war ended, more than half of the chimpanzees had fallen prey to the militia, and also dehydration and starvation. But apparently, that was then and this is now. While it may seem unfair to compare the complications of war to this recent abandonment, the compounding deterioration of care is not altogether incomporable. To be clear, at the moment these animals are being cared for by incredible volunteers who have to travel to these islands to provide aid. Their efforts are thankfully funded by volunteered monies, out of the kindness of stranger's hearts a world away. It's absurd, and unrealistic, though that the health of these chimps hinge on continued, steady charity from the public; their futures are completely uncertain. 

Volunteers load up the boat with food and water. Credit: Agnes Souchal

Volunteers load up the boat with food and water. Credit: Agnes Souchal

In order to better gauge the situation and the eventual welfare of these animals, we spoke with Bob Ingersoll, renowned primatologist and chimpanzee advocate. When we inquired whether or not these chimps could ever survive on their own in the wild, he offered: "Absolutely not. Not even close. And everyone knows it; every expert, every non-expert. Anyone that knows anything about animals that have been raised in captivity away from their conspecifics, and away from what it is that they are, knows that no animal could [survive]." And so, what kind future can these chimpanzees anticipate? The likelihood of further complications in the coming months is strong. These animals would not slip away peacefully in their sleep. They would stagger about an unforgivable terrain, confused and listless until, more than likely, their organs failed them. That is the uncomfortable truth of this situation. As Ingersoll puts it, "It would be agonizing, and horrible, and it would probably take awhile." He then added, "I can only imagine the people that have been, and were, charged with taking care of them must be going through hell. Those chimps are their friends. That's how you kind of come to know them after you've been around them for ahwile, especially ones that you've worked with daily."

Thankfully, although the NYBC refuses to take calls or give interviews, the community has not given up. Katie Conlee — Vice President of animal research for the US Humane Society — is working to provide these chimps with a sanctuary; workers at the research centre in Liberia have transitioned from employees to volunteers in order to feed the chimpanzees, and global organizations such as Born Free & the Jane Goodall Institute have stepped up to help these chimps survive whilst a solution is created to save these creatures. This should give you only momentary peace of mind however, as Bob Ingersoll imparts that the chimpanzee community was stretched thin before NYBC shirked all of their responsibility, adding "We already don't have enough room here in sanctuaries in the United States. We already don't have enough good people to help us with the only 1,840 or so chimpanzeees in the States that are stuck in bad spots." In other words, if the center thinks that the community has the resources to assume NYBC's mistakes without notice, then they are deeply out of touch. The actions taken now by animal advocates and ape researchers are emergency measures at best and no one, especially not the blood center, should believe that this current model of care is sustainable.

Ben hands out plantains to hungry chimpanzees. Source: Agnes Souchal. 

Ben hands out plantains to hungry chimpanzees. Source: Agnes Souchal. 

With all of this in mind, it's a wonder as to how little NYBC has communicated to the public about the situation. Donny Moss, activist, writer, and creator of Their Turn, commented on the center's silence: "After receiving no response from NYBC about their decision to cut funding to their chimps, we staged two protests inside of their lobby in NYC. Even then, they refused to address the issue. I suspect that NYBC thinks that we will eventually drop the issue, but why would caring New Yorkers stop fighting on behalf of the 66 chimps who they left to die?  If we don’t lend our voices and our bodies to these abandoned chimps, then who will?" 

Animal rights activists have been fighting for these chimps full force since news broke of the abandonment in March. A central group, named NYBC: Do The Right Thing, established themselves on Facebook early on and have been breaking news and offering actions for the public to take in protest. For example, from July 8th to the 11th, hundreds of disheartened people from all over the world took to Twitter and posted photos of themselves holding signs to show their solidarity with the chimps. Facebook users also commented on the public page of MetLife, and called, to voice their outrage that the popular American insurance company was continuing their support of the blood center. Overall, MetLife has given more than five million dollars in sponsorship of the center. This year, MetLife even donated a quarter of a million dollars to cover the cost of corporate events and parties - a sum that would help the chimps completely for roughly eight months, or 'provide them with food and water for 2 years.'

Credit: Agnes Souchal

Credit: Agnes Souchal

Financial burden has been an excellent red herring for the center and Karen A. Budkie, Co-Founder and Operations Manager of Stop Animal Exploitation NOW! (SAEN) is among those not falling for it: “Money surely cannot AND should not be NYBC’s motivation for terminating their committed obligation of roughly $400K annually (less than 1/10 of 1% of NYBC’s last reported assets) for lifetime care of the Liberian chimps, for at the end of their fiscal year ending in March 2014, their net assets totaled more than $400 million!” On November 5th of this year, the center will hold an Anniversary Gala, which will also act as a fundraising event. Tables for the gala start out at $15,000 and a dinner sponsor is $150,000. If NYBC sells only one of each category for this singular night, then they would cover the cost of care for all chimps for nearly a year. According to Moss, activists will hold protests at Cipriani, the event space hosting the dinner: “To date, Cipriani has refused to cancel the NYBC event, even though they have been fully briefed by us on NYBC’s unconscionable decision to abandon their lab chimps.” Adding, “Like NYBC, Cipriani is probably betting that we walk away from this campaign. They are in for a rude awakening.” 

Advocates in Durango, Mexico, voicing their disappointment of NYBC's actions. Source.

Advocates in Durango, Mexico, voicing their disappointment of NYBC's actions. Source.

Bob Ingersoll admittedly has a unique connection to this event, having spent decades of his life understanding and advocating for Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who was the focal point of an extended university study on interspecies communication and animal language acquisiton in the 1970s. Ingersoll understands that these animals, many having been raised in a lab, need a very special level of care: "Some home reared chimps that I've been around never really recover from being home-reared. It's different for every individual chimpanzeee and that is important to know, I think, because ultimately, you have to have skilled people that are taking care of these chimps for the rest of their lives. You can't just dump them on an island, throw some money at them, and hope for the best." The evolving situation with these chimps is especially unsettling for this reason; the center could not possibly be unaware of the very distinctive care that these chimps require. Leaving them without so much as a 'back-up' plan (i.e., another organization contractually agreeing to take over operations) is a level of cruelty not unlike human parents dumping their children in a forest to fend for themselves. It's nearly inconceivable. 

Nim Chimpsky writing with chalk. Photo credit: Harry Benson

Nim Chimpsky writing with chalk. Photo credit: Harry Benson

As Ingersoll elaborates, “Each and every one of those animals, you can bet, has a personality just like Nim’s. Everyone that saw [the documentary] Project Nim, fell in love with [him] and his personality. Every single one of those New York Blood Center chimps needs to be taken care of and respected, in a dignified way.” Among the sixty-six is Bullet, whose arm was amputated “following an injury he sustained when his mother was shot.” He arrived at the lab in 1979, at the age of three, and spent the next twenty five years of his life in a research environment. In 2004, he was moved onto the island, but knowing little more than his very human upbringing, and being disabled, his chances for ever living on his own terms were non-existent. Then, there is David, a male chimpanzee who also arrived in 1979; he limps with his left leg and has impaired eyesight, due to cataracts in his right eye. Springroll, a female who is nearly forty years old, is blind in her right eye as the result of a dart needle. Noli, a twenty-one year old female that was born on site, does not have full function of her right arm, after fracturing her humerus in a sliding door when she was younger. These animals, with sweet names you might give a childhood pet, are the very same chimpanzees the New York Blood Center has left for dead. 

"Bullet" on the island. Credit: Agnes Souchal

"Bullet" on the island. Credit: Agnes Souchal

So, what can you do?

This is one scenario where protest and vocal concern may actually win out in a timely fashion. As Budkie writes, “the effort to compel NYBC to do the right thing is coalition of grassroots activists. So this is totally a David vs. Goliath scenario, but we all know who won that one. We are committed and confident of a victory for the NYBC chimps.” Foremost, you can join the Facebook event page, to stay updated on future actions or breaking news. You can also sign Bob Ingersoll’s petition against MetLife or Brian Hare’s petition against the New York Blood Center. You could donate to Katie Conlee's GoFundMe page, which will provide the chimpanzees with food, water, and care until a long-term solution can be found. You can tweet the many news organizations and blood center donors who are turning a blind eye to the situation. 

Last, but certainly not least, as a group we can place overwhelming pressure on the New York Blood Center to rectify what they've done. If you're in the New York area, this upcoming Thursday, July 16th, protestors will meet outside the Park Avenue apartment building of Howard Milstein, the Chairman of NYBC’s Board of Trustees. The action will be led by Donny Moss, who commented on Milstein’s role in this debacle: “We feel that his neighbors in his building and on his block should know that this billionaire left 66 chimps to starve to death, even though his organization promised to provide them with lifetime care after 30 years of experimenting on them.” Or, if you're unable to attend, then write to them directly here. Use the hashtag #NYBCDoTheRightThing on social media and rally with fellow supporters. You can even call Christopher Hillyer, President and CEO of the center: (212) 570-3300.

This situation, which has been thankfully mitigated by dedicated animal advocates and volunteers, could potentially take a much darker turn in the coming months. At present, these sixty-six chimps are futureless, powerless, and need continued, skillful care, which is a responsibility that lies solely on the New York Blood Center. As Bob Ingersoll so eloquently said, "[Chimpanzees] have this dignity about them that most humans don't even come close to" and "thankfully, they will forgive us. They will thrive if given the opportunity, even now. Fortunately, they don't know that we have pretty much turned our back on them, and that's just wrong" 

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