Saturday, April 30, 2011

Saving U.S. chimps from society’s scrap heap

I started writing this blog in March, 2011. It felt cathartic at first, but putting my father’s suicide and brother’s suicide into words opens private wounds to public discussion and, maybe, harsh judgment. But the process of writing has been emotionally exhausting. As anyone who has lived through an abusive situation knows, lowering your guard can be gut wrenching. Maybe it was time to stop. After all, who gives a flying fig about the family of a dead Detroit Zoo chimp trainer?
It so happened that Patti Ragan, founder and director of the Center for Great Apes, had invited me to stay at a cabin on the edge of the Center’s compound. I needed a chance to sort out my head, so I leapt at the opportunity to think and write in solitude, surrounded by Florida’s lush vegetation and the sounds of healthy chimps. As I walked around the apes’ maze of open-air living quarters and enclosed night houses, listening to their play and watching their interactions with each other, I got an unexpected gift. Patti, and the 44 chimpanzees and orangutans who found sanctuary under her devoted care, helped me make my choice.
We, as a society and as individuals, have a choice about how we treat captive chimpnzees and other great apes. We’ve always had a choice. My dad, and his generation of Detroit Zoo chimp trainers and officials throughout the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and even the 1970s, made some very bad choices. Officially, on the record, they treated chimpanzees as money-making commodities that could be prodded or beaten for training purposes.

Brooks has a heart of gold
Patti made a different choice 20 years ago, when she used her own money to start a sanctuary for discarded chimpanzees and orangutans. As I write this, her community of apes is nestled into their sleeping quarters, and a night of quiet descends. The animals feel secure. For many of them, this is the first time they can trust their caregivers. Many bear physical and psychological scars of their past, but now their scars have a chance to fade. They aren’t on display to the public, they aren’t asked to do anything except what is necessary for their health and well-being. They can be who they were meant to be, as much as is possible for apes born into captivity.
Maybe one of the reasons people support the Center for Great Apes is because we can identify with the individual animals. Each kid who was beaten can identify with Butch, a former circus chimp. Every person who felt the abuse of neglect can identify with Linus, a “pet” orangutan kept in horrendous conditions. And, heaven knows, any adult who ever felt ugly can identify with Brooks, who must be the world’s homeliest chimpanzee – but who has a heart of gold. Any person who survived a bad life situation can identify with chimpanzees or orangutans living here. We know that no sentient being should have to go through what they/we did.
Yesterday’s chimpanzees sent to the scrap heap
Chimpanzees naturally show affection. They kiss and embrace. They clown around with each other and they show empathy. But the chimpanzees at the Detroit Zoo, most of them entertainers in the zoo’s famous chimp show, were not allowed to act naturally. They were confined in individual cages until 1971, not permitted to form bonds with other chimps, because they train best under sensory deprivation, relying on the trainer for every need. Astoundingly, in the 30 years between 1945 and 1975, the Detroit Zoo cycled through at least 92 baby chimpanzees. Detroit kept the chimpanzees for less than five years, on average, usually getting rid of them by the age of six or seven, the age when chimps (like human kids) start to assert themselves. The zoo abandoned any responsibility for the 50 years of lifetime care for all of those chimpanzees, except one.
The records show that during those three decades the Detroit Zoo sent only five – less than six percent! – of their discarded chimpanzees to other zoos. After “retirement” (what a sweet word, often masking life’s trash bin for great apes), the zoo sold too many to biological research labs. Three of their chimpanzees – Sammy, Bobby, and Chico, all younger than 10 years old – were even sent to Tulane University, where they were harvesting chimp organs and transplanting them into humans. I can't be sure how Tulane used Sammy, Bobby, Chico, so I've asked the people in charge of the Tulane National Primate Research Center to check their historical records. I'll let you know if they reply. 

Paying debts
Zoo attitudes changed in the 1980s. In 1983, former Detroit Zoo director Steve Graham announced that they were shutting down the chimp show and demolishing the chimpanzees’ substandard and sterile living quarters. “The Detroit Zoo was built on the back of chimpanzees,” Graham explained. “This was a way for me to pay them back.”
Zoos now are increasingly providing sanctuary to retired entertainment chimpanzees; and the growing private sanctuary effort is remarkable. I’m personally partial to the Center for Great Apes, where Patti Ragan is a soft spoken but fierce protector of great apes who need help. She is paying off so many of the debts we owe these animals. The chimpanzees and orangutans at her Center lead richer lives because of Patti and her dedicated crew of caregivers, board members, and supporters.
We have a choice about how today’s great apes are treated. Do we want them in commercials and entertainment, and as breeders for animal dealers? As Americans, we especially have a pivotal choice about the 991 chimpanzees sitting – this very moment – in biomedical laboratories. Do we push Congress to pass the Great Ape Protection Act, to give the chimpanzees in bioinvasive research a chance to live the rest of their lives in sanctuary?
If this blog can do anything to help inform peoples’ choices then, yes, it is worth the discomfort I feel when writing about my life as a chimp trainer's daughter. I hope to keep blogging until all chimpanzees are allowed to live in dignity, or until I have nothing left to say.
The Chimp Trainer’s Daughter blog will add to the growing chorus of voices demanding change. Maybe this is one small way I can help repay the chimpanzees who were beaten by my dad and his generation of trainers.


  1. Dawn, what a truly remarkable voice, one that is pitch perfect, to speak your truth ... our truth ... about our responsibility to each other: human being to human being, and human responsibility to our closest primate relatives, apes, who have quietly suffered our ignorance and invasion into their natural, God-given lives to little if any real benefit to anyone. There is love and compassion in your telling of your truth. There is also courage. Thank you for having the strength of character and spirit to speak out. For all those captives of an economic war, the sacrificial lambs to a religion of greed and righteous justification for misdeeds known and unknown, your advocacy is necessary ... and will ultimately bring you and these captives some peace. You are uniquely positioned to make a difference ... and to show us all the way to forgiveness and atonement. God bless you!

  2. I'm so proud to be your friend and to have shared some of your magical time at the Center. You "get it" on so many levels, and have the words and gift of using them to help others see through your eyes and heart. Chimps (and orangutan performers) could not have a better spokesperson. Keep speaking out for them and you will find healing for yourself as well. See the current article in psychology today

  3. keep writing dawn! i very much enjoy following your honesty and love for them.

  4. Libby said....
    I'm so proud to know Patti and to have visited the Center for Great Apes. I hope you keep writing, Dawn, to educate others on the work of people like Patti Ragan and others who are trying so hard to right so much wrong.