Thursday, April 23, 2015

Ape justice

People can have a schizophrenic view of great apes.

On the one hand, we want to protect apes in their natural habitat, and condemn those who traffic in the black market for the pet trade. On the other hand, we condone Leonardo DiCaprio and others who support the exploitation of captive apes for human entertainment.

In the latest news, we resoundingly applaud the news that a New York County Supreme Court Justice has granted legal standing on behalf of two chimpanzees being used in biomedical experimentation, to force their release to Save the Chimps. (See this blog post from Born Free for the best explanation I’ve seen on the “writ of habeas corpus” excitement.) On the other hand, we ignore the plight of two gorillas living for years in trailers while a defunct language experiment enters its final death throes.

The public has been intrigued by blondes and apes
since King Kong fell in love with Fay Wray in 1933.
Oh, I see the difference. The secretive biomedical industry is made up of evil men committing unspeakable acts, while the open and transparent language experimenter is a pretty blonde who cuddles with her captives. However, the differences may not be as wide as we imagine.

People are trying to free two chimps -- Hercules and Leo -- from a university research program. Some information is out there on Stony Brook University’s research on chimps. Dr. Susan Larson wants to determine if “australopithecine bipedality was transitional between that of apes and humans.” One of her students, Nathan Thompson, is “performing a kinematic investigation of head motion and its relationship to gait in both humans and chimpanzees.” Dr. Brigitte Demes’ current research “addresses the facultative bipedal locomotion of nonhuman primates (capuchin monkeys and chimpanzees) with the goal of better understanding the evolutionary changes related to the adoption of habitual bipedal posture and gait in early hominins.” I assume they are using Hercules and Leo in this research. (Let me clear: I think the research is of questionable value, and it certainly is not worth the life-long price demanded of the chimpanzees and monkeys.)

Now let’s compare this to the information available about Koko and Ndume, at The Gorilla Foundation. We don’t know if any research is being conducted. We don’t even know, for sure, that both of the gorillas are still alive. They have always treated feces-flinging Ndume like shit, but now he has dropped entirely from sight. As recently as April 9, the Foundation was touting its “most comprehensive conservation effort to-date (sic) – featuring BOTH Koko and Michael.” Not Koko and Ndume, but LONG DEAD Michael, who passed away 15 years ago.



Seeing the latest list of Gorilla Foundation employees adds fuel to the speculation about the gorillas. A couple of years ago, in its heyday, the Foundation employed nine caregivers. The information on their website now shows two caregivers (who also handle administrative functions) and a recent high school graduate working as nighttime monitor. That is not a sufficient crew to take care of two screwed up adult gorillas. (It is interesting to note they boast FOUR executives and a personal assistant to the director, in addition to two administrative staffers. Speaks volumes about priorities, doesn’t it?) So, are they understaffed for two gorillas, or staffed barely well enough for one?

I heartily support the efforts of the Nonhuman Rights Project to get the New York chimpanzees released to a safe sanctuary. I wish we could do the same for the California gorillas. Even if we can’t send Ndume to a sanctuary or to a zoo more responsible than his owner (Cincinnati Zoo), I wish we could know that he is alive and well. And that Michael has not come back from the dead.


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Keeping the record straight on Great Ape Trust – Bonobo Hope – Iowa Primate Research Sanctuary – Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative

Former Des Moines Register reporter Perry Beeman, who previously wrote glowingly of the dysfunctional Great Ape Trust, has written another puff piece for the beleaguered bonobo facility. In Resurgent ape center looks to expand, allow visitors, Beeman unquestioningly repeats the recycled plans presented as the way forward for the (now called) Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative. 

We’ve heard it before. Over the years, ACCI and its predecessor organizations have hyped almost every single item on their recently unveiled “plan” list. I hope that this time they are truly trying to remove the stigma conferred on them by their previous pie-in-the-sky ideas (Kanzi leading an artist colony, robobonobo, etc., etc.), but the plans, as reported by Beeman, do not inspire confidence.

Will "retired" research chimpanzees join Kanzi for more research?
They “have plans” for “a multi-million-dollar endowment to provide long-term care for the apes”? I hope there’s a donor associated with that plan. They are going develop “a revamped public visitation program”? One hopes they aren’t thinking of re-instituting their carnivals or bonobo cuddles.

I was particularly interested in their plans for acquiring “up to 25 chimpanzees from national primate centers… with possible financial support of up to $425,000 per year from the National Institutes of Health.” So I asked Renate Myles, chief of the News Media Branch, National Institutes of Health about it. She tells me, “NIH has no plans to relocate NIH-owned chimpanzees to the Iowa facility and we do not provide any funding to that facility.”

Let me repeat that: NIH has no plans to relocate NIH-owned chimpanzees to the Iowa facility and we do not provide any funding to that facility.

Jared Taglialatela, the unpaid research advisor for ACCI, thinks “bringing in chimpanzees would allow researchers to compare the cognition and communication abilities of chimps and bonobos on a single campus.” Like the world needs more ape language research studies. To the contrary, we need to end them.

Besides, let me break the news to Jared: the federal chimps are being retired. Period. We’ve studied them to death, literally. So just stop salivating for using them as bait for federal funds. Let them live the rest of their lives in peace, in a sanctuary.

Acquiring and using the chimps to boost their financial fortunes is first on the facility’s wish list. The NIH statement makes it pretty clear that the retired federally-owned chimpanzees won’t be available for Iowa’s latest scheme. Maybe there is another avenue open for chimpanzee acquisition, though… Maybe one of the primate research centers is going to donate some of their non-federal chimps? With a big wad of cash? Jared is, after all, a former research associate with Yerkes National Primate Research Center. And Yerkes recently announced that they were sending some of their research chimpanzees to a zoo in England, and was looking at "additional donation opportunities."

I look forward to Jared’s explanation of how he plans to acquire and use "retired" chimpanzees. I hope he didn't intend to imply that ACCI was getting federally-owned chimps, because that would be misleading. He needs to set the record straight.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Federally-owned retired research chimps are betrayed

Update, Feb. 16, 2015: I removed my original post (Feb. 14, 2015) on the status of the retired federal research chimpanzees. I based the post largely on reporting by CNN. Since then, multiple sources have told me that CNN's report was inaccurate. I have reached out to NIH, for their explanation on why, many months after Dr. Francis Collins announced that the research chimp community would be retired, few chimpanzees have been moved to Chimp Haven, the national sanctuary. I will re-post the article after I've given NIH the opportunity to respond to the CNN article, hopefully later this week. In the meantime, I'd like to apologize to Dr. Collins and the NIH staff for not checking with them first.

Update, February 18, 2015: I heard from NIH, and I am even more disheartened. Here is my re-written article:

Remember the celebration, the pure joy we all felt when the federal government announced in June 2013 that they would retire the federal research chimps? The National Institutes of Health, led by Dr. Francis Collins, would release the hundreds of chimpanzees to sanctuary, so they could live out the rest of their lives in comfort. Finally.

Research chimps are trained to open their mouths for medical exams. Photo by CNN.

Ah, I for one didn't pay attention to the small print. They would "retire the majority of the NIH-owned chimpanzees deemed unnecessary for biomedical research to the Federal Sanctuary System contingent upon resources and space availability in the sanctuary system."

I don’t know who feels most betrayed by the fact, as reported in this revealing CNN piece, that “only six of the 310 research chimps have been allowed to leave government research facilities, and the agency has no timetable for when it will retire the rest to sanctuaries. In the meantime, dozens of the chimps have died waiting.”

Well, actually, NIH tells me that the CNN number isn’t correct. They point out that 66 chimpanzees have been retired to Chimp Haven since NIH made its announcement in June 2013, not six. Also, they say, “as space comes open at the Federal Sanctuary [Chimp Haven], we feel confident that we will be able to identify chimpanzees to fill those spaces without interfering with the selection of the population of 50 chimpanzees for future research.”

And that’s the problem, isn’t it? AS SPACE COMES OPEN

A little over a year ago, in December 2013, I praised Dr. Collins in my blogpost. I made him my Person of the Year. “In a stunning series of decisions that has ended research for most of the federally-supported chimps, this man has turned our image of government indifference upside down,” I wrote. “His support for transferring the use of federal dollars from research labs to the sanctuary system has done more than we had a right to hope to advance the quality of life for these chimps.” My praise was, let us say, worse than premature – it was outright foolish.

When Congress passed legislation in November 2013, giving NIH the needed flexibility within its budget to retire government-owned chimpanzees to sanctuaries, then-Senator Mary Landrieu assured the sanctuary that “this legislation will ensure that when chimpanzees are retired from medical research that they are well cared for and live the remainder of their lives in a natural setting.”

But there is no sanctuary in sight for the chimps sitting in research labs. NIH explained it to me this way:

“The NIH FY 2016 budget request does not include funds for construction to expand the Federal Sanctuary operated by Chimp Haven, Inc. in Keithville, Louisiana… As space becomes available in the Federal sanctuary due to natural mortality [my emphasis], NIH will continue to transfer chimpanzees to Chimp Haven.”

In other words, the federal government does not intend to use its funds to build sanctuary space to house its chimpanzees. They are waiting for chimps to die, so others can take their place. Oh, and they are “continuing to pursue other options for transferring NIH-owned and -supported chimpanzees to the Federal Sanctuary System” -- but they provide no specifics.

NIH did remind me that Chimp Haven accepts donations from the public and philanthropic organizations for construction of additional retirement facilities. Yes, we know that. Organizations and individuals have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Chimp Haven, so they could provide housing and care for the newly-retired federally-owned chimps. Chimp Haven has put that money to good use, caring for over 200 chimps.

It’s plain to see, now, that the federal agency that owns the chimpanzees, that encouraged and supported and paid for their biomedical exploitation for decades, has essentially washed their hands of the troublesome animals. There is no federal money forthcoming for sanctuary.

I could kick myself. I wasn't paying attention. But even as I know it's my own fault for not paying close enough attention, I feel betrayed by NIH. Even worse, did I, through my complacency and ill-placed hopes, betray the hundreds of chimpanzees who have no hope for sanctuary – until another chimp dies and opens up a spot at Chimp Haven?

Monday, September 1, 2014

What happens to baby pet chimp when he becomes a strong adult?

When I first heard of the blog about Aya Katz and her pet chimp, Bow, I was angry and disgusted. People who keep great apes in their homes and raise them to be not-apes make my blood boil. But as I learned more about Ms. Katz’s situation, my anger turned to sadness. This is a disaster waiting to happen, and there’s nothing I can do to prevent it.

Aya has evidently been blogging about her experience raising a Bow for a number of years. She writes children's books, including one that, based on the Amazon reviews, is encouraging other mothers to buy a primate for their kids. How does someone arrive at a life decision to buy a pet chimpanzee and encourage others to do the same? At one point, Aya was a practicing attorney in Grand Prairie, Texas, but according to her online bio, she left the law and became a linguist. Somewhere along the line, she started calling herself a primatologist – although she doesn’t cite any formal education in primatology. (I guess a chimp owner could consider oneself “home schooled.”)

Aya Katz holds baby Bow at the breeder's place, while another young chimp and Aya's daughter look on.
Project ChimpCare estimates that there are more than 50 chimpanzees with private breeders and in private homes across the United States. I’m sure that every single one of the owners think they know better than real primatologists, that they will shower so much love on their little chimp that it will never harm them or try to escape or harm others. I’m sure Aya never thinks that Bow will harm her or anyone else, not even when he is 20 years old with hormones raging, and has five times the strength of a man. Bow will never turn into a rampaging Travis, tearing off the face of his owner’s best friend. Bow will never be like Buddy, escaping his cage and getting gunned down on a neighborhood street. Bow won’t become one of a line of dead pet chimps.

Aya says she bought Bow in 2002, which means he is at least 12 years old now. Aya is in her 50s. So what does she have planned for Bow? After all, as a “primatologist,” Aya must know that chimpanzees can live 50 years or more, and will always be dependent 24/7 on a human caregiver. What has Aya planned for Bow’s next 40 years?

“We are still getting along just fine. And I think we will continue to get along when he is an adult,” Aya writes, optimistically, in her blog. “But the question for me is how to prepare for the day when Bow no longer has me to rely on. And any solution I choose, I believe needs to be a solution that is not just good for Bow, but for ten generations into the future.”

Looking ten generations ahead is great. But what about THIS generation? What is going to happen to this specific chimpanzee?

Aya evidently doesn’t want the assistance of a sanctuary, “because the funding for [sanctuaries] comes from people who have no real interest in chimpanzees and who are largely committed to ending the existence of chimpanzees outside the continent of Africa.” So, we can establish the fact that she is abysmally ignorant about the tens of thousands of people who give up their own money to help support chimpanzees that are not theirs. Chimps just like Bow.

She “hopes” that Bow will have children of his own. How does that happen, when he is stuck in a private home, alone in his cage?

Is she going to want to put him in a zoo? I don’t know of any accredited zoo that will take a discarded pet chimpanzee who hasn’t been with his own species since he was grabbed from his mother’s arms to be sold to someone like Aya. But perhaps there is a roadside zoo where Bow can sit in his rusty cage and get teased by rowdy customers. That is one of the few options left, because Aya knows the breeder won’t take him back. In her blog post, she explains that when she first bought Bow the breeder wanted to make sure “that you won't bail out when the going gets tougher.”

We know that it is going to get tougher. It always does. And chimpanzee owners need to bail – regardless of what the breeder says as she takes the check.

There are few ways out, and Aya has closed the door to them. This is going to have a sad ending.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Chimp photo represents plight of apes in entertainment

The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.  --Aristotle
Art4Apes is holding its 2nd annual ENDANGERED Art& Photography contest, to benefit the wonderful Center for Great Apes. I’m not an artist, but I have a couple of the photographs that my father took with his Kodak camera back in 1950, when he was a chimp trainer at the Detroit Zoo. Even though I am not eligible to compete for the money prize (since I am not the photographer), the organizers were kind enough to accept the photo. I believe it represents the plight of apes in entertainment.



Jo was one of more than a hundred chimps who were stolen from murdered mothers' arms in Africa, destined for short entertainment careers with the Detroit Zoo’s long-running Chimp Show. The trainers would use violent techniques – pinching, slapping, and punching – to show the chimpanzees "who was boss." Jo Mendi II was that era's only chimpanzee to remain at the Detroit Zoo beyond the first seven or eight years of cuteness. Most of the others were dumped into research or breeding facilities.

Dad was one of the trainers who abused the chimps. He was fired when he finally went too far and threw a young chimpanzee against the wall. It seems fitting, then, to use Dad’s photo of Jo ‒ showing the anthropomorphic costume, the gray desolation, and the shadows of the bars ‒ to educate people about the abuse and exploitation of these marvelous chimpanzees.

The Detroit Zoo stopped putting clothes on its chimps in the mid-1980s. The Chimp Shows stopped. Unfortunately, as demonstrated by Leonardo DiCaprio's despicable use of a chimp in a recent movie, the exploitation of apes in entertainment continues today.    

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Using Koko to exploit the death of Robin Williams

The Gorilla Foundation says this is Koko lamenting
the death of Robin Williams. Former caregivers point
out that this is her everyday funk.
I see that Penny Patterson is now exploiting Robin Williams’ death to promote her Gorilla Foundation. It’s one thing to recirculate a video taken more than a decade ago, when Robin met Koko, if the point is to pay tribute to a good man. It is quite another thing, however, to take pictures of Koko in her everyday funk and tell gullible media – who are searching for ANY new angle on the Williams story – that Koko is so terribly sad about the death of a human she met more than ten years ago. Naturally, ape lovers who don’t know better will give $$ to Koko in honor of Robin. And that’s the whole point of this disgusting exploitation, isn’t it Penny?

This week marks a new low for The Gorilla Foundation.

(BTW, if this use of Robin Williams is tempting you to contribute, you might want to review The Gorilla Foundation's rating on Charity Navigator. It has a low rating, only 2 stars. There are better ways to support gorilla conservation and welfare.)