Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Why did Terry Thompson do it?

This is a time to mourn the dozens of animals killed in the panic at Zanesville, Ohio, after animal farm owner Terry Thompson released all of his animals and then killed himself. The death of so many animals is beyond horrible… The staggering carnage borders on unspeakable.
I trust the animal welfare community and, indeed, all of the good citizens of Ohio, to rise to the occasion and demand reasonable laws and, until new laws are enacted, enforcement of their supremely insufficient regulations. I wish I could say that I trusted Governor John Kasich to act responsibly, but I am pessimistic. I hope he proves that my pessimism is misplaced.
My heart goes out to the law enforcement officers who had to shoot the animals.
But regular readers of my blog will know where my thoughts are directed… What was in Terry Thompson’s mind when he freed his animals before shooting himself? Was he filled with hatred for the community, and took his revenge by setting his animals free to terrorize people he knew? Or did he irrationally, bizarrely, want his animals to feel the freedom that he, as an ex-prisoner, had lost?
It is being reported that Thompson was tens of thousands of dollars in debt, which may help explain his final reason for suicide. But that doesn't even begin to explain why he released his animals. And if I’ve learned anything this year, searching for the reasons for the suicides in my family, it’s that there is usually more than meets the eye.
I always thought that dad killed himself because he was a little crazy but, over the past couple of months, I’ve discovered a more complicated man. I thought my brother shot himself because he saw his life going into a dead-end situation like dad’s, but I’ve discovered a much more troubled life. I didn’t know the reason for a young cousin’s suicide with a gun, and I was shocked to find out that two of my great grandparents killed themselves. It is so hard to understand the wasted lives, the painful results of suicide.
Will this suicide, this man, this awful situation, help us understand the mindsets of people who would collect dangerous animals as if they were toys? Or will we shake our heads and walk away, confused, with no answers to another inexplicable - and particularly vile - suicide?

Please click here to help ban private ownership of exotic animals in Ohio. There is no reason to allow private ownership, unless you want to protect the rights of suicidal ex-cons to terrorize their neighbors.

Update 10/21/11: So many people are angry because the animals were shot instead of tranquilized, and I understand that anger. But this morning a woman with many years of experience with captive animals explained to me why they had to make the tough decision:

"Darting animals is an art, even when it's an experienced zoo vet darting a caged animal. Many people don't understand that animals don't drop in their tracks when darted, even if the drug is fully injected. It can take 20 minutes or more for the drug to take full effect. Sometimes the dart doesn't even go off. Sometimes the animal is so full of adrenaline that the drug will not take effect. Drugs are calculated based on weight - too much is fatal, not enough is useless. How do you get a good weight on an unknown animal hiding in the bushes? The sheriff deputies had no choice. What's sad is that these animals were not recognized as a public safety hazard from the day they arrived in that compound."

Update 10/22/11: I happened to be driving from Maryland to Illinois the weekend after the massacre, and Zanesville was on the way. I pulled off the road, just to silently pay my respects to the 50 animals who died because of one man's desperation. And because of inadequate laws to protect the animals who are forced to rely on sometimes unstable people.

Update 12/10/11: This article by Sue Manning at Associated Press, Economy has wildlife rescue on endangered species list, wonders whether the financial challenges facing sanctuaries may have driven Thompson over the edge.

Update 1/10/12: A Tighter Leash on Exotic Pets, by Sarah Maslin Nir at the New York Times, is a good summary of how governments and animal welfare groups are working for stronger laws to protect people and the animals. Maybe some good will come out of this tragic event, after all.

On January 18, the Zanesville Time-Recorder reported on the final police investigation report. Witnesses suggest that Thompson was distraught about his upcoming house arrest, and was overwhelmed with the care of the animals. The paper suggests that the release may have been pre-mediated.

Update 2/5/12: Ohio State Senator Troy Balderson introduced legislation to ban new ownership of exotic pets in Ohio.

Update 4/30/12: Ohio still hasn't passed the legislation. In the meantime, Marion Thompson is about to get back the five surviving animals

Update 12/21/12: Ohioans now are protected by a reasonable law, as reported in the Plain Dealer: Ohio law banning ownership of dangerous wild animals survives challenge in federal court.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Where do research and corporate greed intersect?

I believe in science. I rely on good science to explain the intricacies of life and the wonders of this world and the universe beyond. But believing in science, and giving free rein to researchers, are two different things. Just because a person dons the mantle of science, it doesn’t mean that his opinion is necessarily objective. For too long, I think, the research industry that uses chimpanzees and other primates has considered itself beyond the reach of public accountability.
A couple of days ago I asked a question: should Yerkes Primate Center retire Wenka, a 57-year-old chimpanzee who has been in research her entire life? Should Yerkes send her to a sanctuary so “she may really finally have a chance to be a chimpanzee before she leaves this earth,” as Roberta Herman said in her comments to the blog.
In another incisive comment, Julie Robertson pointed out that in 2007, “Yerkes received a $10 million grant from the National Institute of Aging for a five year study comparing 400 human women, 25 chimpanzees, and other primates. Yerkes has acknowledged that chimpanzees do not get Alzheimer’s disease or MCI (mild cognitive impairment),” she says, “so why use chimpanzees in this study at all?”
“Perhaps a $10 million grant is the incentive,” Julie suggested.
Before people reject Julie’s suggestion out of hand, we need to consider the influence of money on research.
The National Primate Research Centers have more than 26,000 animals representing more than 20 species of nonhuman primates. They have almost a thousand chimpanzees. I can’t even imagine how much money is involved here, money from companies desperate for the research results that will get their product through regulatory reviews, and money from federal agencies that have a long (and erroneous) history of promoting chimpanzees for research for whatever ails you.
Last March I wrote a blog about chimps “curing the common cold and bringing human fetuses to term.” I was, and remain, enthralled by a 1967 book written by a primatologist, Vernon Reynolds. Please excuse me for repeating a quote from his book:
“There may well be as many apes in research laboratories in America, England, and Russia as there are in captivity in zoos. It is of course inevitable that this should be so. Most of the laboratory apes are chimpanzees… I list a few of the diseases in which research is being helped by apes: malaria, poliomyelitis, diphtheria, common cold, syphilis, whooping cough, heart disease, and cancer. In addition, one of the newest and potentially greatest uses of ape subjects is in the field of organ transplantation. Already chimpanzee kidneys have been used to replace a diseased human kidney, though as yet this technique is in its infancy and has not had any long-term successes. This is a rapidly expanding medical field, however, and it is reasonable prophecy that, by the end of this century, there will be many people alive only by virtue of the chimpanzee kidneys and hearts within their bodies; or people who have regained their sight by the grafting of chimpanzee corneas into their eyes. Chimpanzees may even be used to bring to term an implanted human fetus.”
Just substitute today’s diseases, and you will have the stated justification for using chimpanzees in research today.
The federal Committee on the Use of Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research will issue a public report by the end of the calendar year, stating their recommendations about the use of chimpanzees in research. There is stalled legislation in Congress that would stop funding of research on chimpanzees. We haven’t heard much from the primate research industry, and from the companies that pay them for the use of their animals. That silence is striking.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Corporate greed in advertising and research

Scientific American has an excellent article this week, “Chimpanzees should not be used in TV or movies.” Science NOW writes that "cute TV chimps may harm their wild brethren." Reading these articles, I couldn’t help but wonder why marketers still use chimps, even when they have been told that their exploitation hurts chimpanzee welfare and conservation.
I’ve also been wondering why researchers still use chimpanzees, when they know the chimps suffer.
I think I may have discovered a link. Could it be that corporate profits and greed in the entertainment industry, the advertising industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and the research industry are more important than the lives of these animals?
I know, it’s a stupid question. After all, we have so much evidence showing the compassionate side of corporations lately.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Ex-Yerkes employees tell me about Wenka

Within hours of writing today’s blog about Wenka, I heard from three people who are actively involved in chimpanzee care and who have worked at Yerkes National Primate Research Center. All three people have personal experience with Wenka, and all expressed their attachment to her, “a lovely chimpanzee.”
Their emails reinforce my original contention, that deciding what is best for Wenka keep her at Yerkes or move her to a sanctuary is not easily decided. But the weight of their combined opinions may come down to a different conclusion than I had. I’ll let you be the judge, so I want to share what they told me. (All asked to be kept anonymous, so I will refer to them as Person A, Person B, and Person C.)
Person A confirmed what I understood about the nature of research for the aging study.
“The vast majority of the ‘aging study’ that she and other chimps are on is non-invasive in nature. I am pretty confident that this is still the case for Wenka,” A explained. “In other words, she may get behavioral observations or non-invasive samples taken and, ultimately, they are very interested in scanning her brain when she passes. I just don't think anyone should get the false impression of daily liver punches or anesthesia events.” [Knocking the chimpanzee out, and taking samples of the chimp’s liver tissue, are “normal” practices for invasive research. This is not happening to Wenka.]
Distressingly, Person A disabused me of my notion about Wenka’s comfort at Yerkes. A’s understanding of conditions there, if still true, really bothers me. “You suggested she should get more nesting materials. The chimps at the main center basically get NO nesting materials... It's been that way for a long time.” No nesting materials no straw, no sheets or blankets, not even a lousy discarded t-shirt to cuddle with reminds me of the sterile conditions for the Detroit Zoo’s entertainment chimpanzees back in the 1950s and 60s. I thought we had progressed since then!
“I applaud your rational assessment of the situation,” A continues writing, unaware of how my blood is now boiling past the point of earlier rationality. “I wish more people would think like this and not simply react to what seems to be an unfair situation. There are, as you mention, practical considerations to layer upon the ethical ones.”
“I also want to point out that PETA and GARP are just two groups that have pushed for these retirements; more mainstream groups like HSUS have done so as well.”
Person A thinks, as I do, that we need to give more thought to what happens if Yerkes did decide to relinquish Wenka and other elderly chimps.
“Who pays for their transport and who pays for their lifetime care? It's easy to say that Yerkes should, but history shows that this is somewhat unlikely to happen, given that we are talking about disbursement of public funds,” according to Person A. “Also, we should consider how right it is to transport a 57-year old chimp, as that comes with its own health risks.”
Now the next email… The New England Anti-Vivisection Society posted Person B’s moving account of time spent with Wenka.
“I believe Wenka should be retired to Chimp Haven [a sanctuary in Louisiana] and housed near or with other chimps she knew,” Person B writes, explaining “all of the Yerkes' retirees are there.”
“And I believe National Institutes of Health should generously fund it,” Person B writes.
“I do not believe in the necessity of this aging project she and others like her have been involved with,” Person B says. “How is it okay to perpetuate violence and suffering in the world, no matter the species? But here we have a species sacrificing another endangered species to continue to perpetuate their own myth that they can somehow eradicate their own suffering and death. Instead we make more misery.”
Person C, on the other hand, is more willing to cut Yerkes some slack.
“Think about it this way: Wenka is 57 years old and lived a hell of a life and she’s still kicking, so they have to be doing something right.”
Person C thinks that a lot has changed at Yerkes over the past couple of years, and that things aren’t as bad as they once were. Still, Person C sees problems. “In my opinion, for the most part they do what they can, but they suffer from the same problems that zoos do. Limited space and money…”
So, what’s the verdict from these people who have known Wenka, and who know about chimpanzee care?
Person A: “I, too, am not firmly in one camp or the other on this, but I simply wish a better end of life for Wenka. She doesn't have much longer now and I've seen some great things happen to some old chimps at places like Chimp Haven.”
Person B: “I believe Wenka would be happy at Chimp Haven if she could be near others she knew.”
Person C: “I just want the best for the chimps and, honestly, I can't tell you what that is...”

UPDATE, Dec 15 2011: J.B. Mulcahy, at Chimp Sanctuary Northwest, wrote an eye opening blog post on so-called behavioral research at Yerkes. His post, A Necessary Evil?, explains how chimps in behavioral research undergo traumatic medical procedures, something I didn't know. Now I do know this: we have to end all chimpanzee research and get those chimps under the care of people with compassion. Now.

Who is right about Wenka? PETA or Yerkes?

Life is complicated. And I’m not finding that it gets any easier as I get older. (What happened to that “wiser” stuff, by the way? When does that come in?) As I edge ever closer to 60 years old, I find that gray is more prominent in my life – in my hair (45 years of hair dye is enough, thanks), and in-between the black and white answers I’ve wanted to believe in. I’ve recently been struggling with an issue that would appear to have a clear answer, but may not.
Wenka is 57-year-old chimpanzee at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. She was born at Yerkes and, except for a brief stint as someone’s pet, Wenka has always been at Yerkes. Although the behavioral research programs there don’t involve the nasty life-sapping procedures of bioinvasive medical research, life hasn’t been easy for her. She was used as a breeder, and all of her babies were pulled from her, which is devastating to a chimpanzee, much as it is for a human. I won’t go into all of her troubles, although they are substantial, as Project R&R (Release & Restitution for Chimpanzees in U.S. Laboratories) explains in Wenka’s Story.
Recently, a group called Georgia Animal Rights and Protection has been protesting in front of Emory’s Yerkes Center, as reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitutional’s article No Retirement in Sight for Aging Research Chimpanzee, trying to convince Yerkes to send Wenka to a sanctuary. PETA also posted a Plea to Release the Oldest Lab Chimpanzee.
I polled my friends on what they thought should happen, and every single one of them said that Yerkes should send Wenka to a sanctuary. I’m not so sure I agree. I am 1000 percent for sanctuaries, and it should be easy to say yes, get her out of that research facility, but…
I hate the thought of Wenka living behind bars. I wish all chimpanzees, all great apes, all primates, all animals could live in their natural habitats, or at least in situations that come closer to mimicking their habitats. But, given that sanctuaries are under such financial pressures (donations decrease during economic downturns), I wonder if we should start thinking less about where behavioral research chimps live and more about how they live.
I am not (yet) convinced that a sanctuary is the only option for Wenka, but I don’t think that the situation should remain unchanged. I think Yerkes needs to do three things:
  1. Ensure that Wenka’s involvement in research is up to her, and that she enjoys it. A Yerkes spokesperson says she is still a subject in an “aging” study. It seems to me that a chimpanzee who has had all of her babies taken away and has been subject to who knows how many research projects and prodding is not a real good model for studying human aging problems, but maybe they are looking at how to care for an aging chimp who lived in a research facility her whole life. Regardless, researchers can design cognitive activities to enrich Wenka’s days, and they should.
  2. Pamper the older chimpanzees. I understand that the chimpanzees at Yerkes have unlimited access to the outdoors, 24/7, unless the weather is bad, and that’s a good thing. But we older folks need more pampering. Chimpanzees who have given their lives to research deserve it. Give Wenka fewer biscuits (known as “monkey chow”) and more fresh produce. Give her more nesting materials. (The care technicians will just have to spend a little more time cleaning. Big deal.) Find those little ways to make her daily life better.
  3. Break new ground. Yerkes National Primate Research Center has 96 chimpanzees. Those chimps, and the other 900 living in research facilities across the U.S., will need a lot more care as they age. Frankly, given the lack of transparency at these facilities, the public doesn’t trust them to provide the special care and attention needed by elderly chimpanzees. Work with the primate advocacy community and with sanctuary experts to set up a voluntary ‒ and transparent! ‒ system to verify that compassionate care is Yerkes’ top priority for elderly chimpanzees.
Wenka has a special place in America’s history with research chimpanzees. Her name is a play on the combination of the names of her parents, Web and Banka, who were among the first 100 chimpanzees of the first experimental breeding colony in the United States. She now lives with two other old ladies. All three chimpanzee ladies deserve our gratitude. On behalf of old broads everywhere, human and chimp, I call on Yerkes to let us know how they will repay Wenka and the others for their service.
Trusting Yerkes to improve their care for elderly chimpanzees is not a perfect solution. I admit, it’s kind of a gray response to an issue that is not strictly black or white (as I consider bioinvasive research to be). But I’m afraid it’s the best we can do until we get laws changed in this country, and end government funding for chimpanzee research. Until that day comes, our focus needs to be on making Wenka’s last years her best years.
One final thought: If Yerkes won’t consider the changes I’ve suggested, or propose their own solutions, then it appears that PETA and Georgia Animal Rights and Protection may have the right idea after all. If there's one thing I've learned in my six decades, it is not to trust institutions that don't listen to reason.

Update, 4:15 pm 10/9/11: It didn't take long for me to hear from Yerkes ex-employees. Read their responses here.  

Thursday, October 6, 2011

In memory of a great chimpanzee, and with love for a great lady

Patti Ragan and Grub on his 20th birthday
It is always bad to hear about death of loved ones. The death of an elderly parent or geriatric animal is immeasurably sad – but it is, after all, expected sooner or later. When unexpected death comes to those at the height of their lives, it seems to me that the sorrow carves just a bit deeper. I realize that people who have never truly connected to an animal may not understand when I say this: I believe that when you lose a loved one, it doesn’t matter that the loved one doesn’t walk upright or speak in vocalized words. Love is love, loss is loss, and pain is pain.

This afternoon I learned that a wonderful chimpanzee who had been healthy and vibrant lost his life as he laid in the arms of a woman who cared for him for almost every day of his 20 years. I am so sad for Grub, a kind, sensitive, funny, and loving chimpanzee. I am even sadder for Patti Ragan, my friend who loved him.

When you read her words, you will learn a lot. You will learn about Grub and you will understand his role in inspiring the establishment of her sanctuary. You will sense the connection between two beings who are different species but who share a common spirit. Above all, I believe, you will feel the deep and abiding love of a woman who has dedicated her life to caring for great apes like Grub.

Memorial for Grub

A guest contribution from Patti Ragan
Founder and director, Center for Great Apes 
Wauchula, Florida

Losing one of our great ape residents is the hardest and saddest part of our work in providing sanctuary care for them. This week, our hearts are breaking with the loss of our first chimpanzee resident at the Center for Great Apes – our precious Grub.

Grub was the most wonderful chimpanzee and had many fans and friends, both chimp and human. He passed Tuesday in my arms after a sudden illness that was advanced and terminal. He was 20 years old.

While I know that Grub is not suffering and is out of pain now, my grief comes from a sense of great loss in not having him physically in our lives anymore. But I realize that all the wonderful qualities and intelligence expressed by Grub… along with the joy and sweetness he brought to others… are always in our thoughts and memories and did not pass away with Grub.

Today, still in the blur of tears and sadness, I want to remember the happiest part of Grub’s life and the things that made Grub such a special and dear fellow.

Grub has been in my care since he was 12 weeks old when he arrived at a Miami tourist attraction in 1991 where I was already volunteering to care for infant orangutan Pongo. As I helped to take care of several infant apes there, I became more aware of issues around the retirement of hand-raised apes used in entertainment and also as pets. It was Pongo and Grub (and concern for their future) who provided the impetus to start a sanctuary for orangutans and chimpanzees coming out of these situations.

It is because of Grub that over 30 chimpanzees have had a home at our sanctuary over the past 18 years.

Grub grew up with Kenya (now 18), Noelle (17), and Toddy (39). Two years ago, former Hollywood performer Mowgli (12) joined this group and became Grub’s best male friend. Grub has lived and played with other chimpanzees here too – Brooks, Angel, Kodua, and just recently, Chipper. But Noelle and Grub had a special bond, and they spent many hours in play and grooming sessions.

Grub gives Knuckles a kind caress
His most amazing relationship was with our young handicapped chimpanzee, Knuckles, who arrived at the Center nearly 10 years ago when he was 2 years old. Knuckles had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy and had difficulty walking. Grub, Kenya, and Noelle all accepted Knuckles into their group for limited playtimes. Grub was the most gentle with him and seemed to be fully aware of his limitations and specialness. However, when Mowgli joined the group, he was not so gentle with Knuckles and would playfully try to poke him or pull Knuckles’ hair through the wire mesh when Knuckles visited Grub’s group. But Grub would keep an eye on Mowgli, and if he saw that Mowgli was getting too rambunctious with Knuckles, Grub would either gently put his hand on Mowgli’s arm to stop him… or give him a stern eye to warn Mowgli not to touch Knuckles.

Grub’s gentle nature was also evident in his love of dogs. As a youngster, Grub grew up around several dogs that lived at the tourist attraction. He giggled in games of chase with the dogs and would be ‘over the moon’ when they licked his face! As he grew in strength, we had to limit his direct contact for the safety of the dogs. But Grub still had a golden retriever friend in Wauchula (Joe) who was the happy recipient of monkey chow biscuits that Grub would toss to him… and then play “chase” as Joe ran around the outside of Grub’s habitat.

Grub was a master mask-maker
While Grub was a well-known chimpanzee artist (once featured on the NBC Today Show) and loved to paint, the most striking activity that most people will remember Grub for was his penchant for mask-making. He learned to make masks when a volunteer made one for him from a paper plate when he was only 3 years old in Miami. But he didn’t want to wear it… he wanted her to put it on. From that one time watching the volunteer tear out eyeholes, he began to experiment with paper bags, cereal boxes, wrapping paper… and when he couldn’t find paper in his habitat, he would pick up fallen leaves and make tiny masks from those. His joy seemed to be in presenting these “Grub-masks” to visitors at the Center and watching them wear them. In fact, he made a beautiful mask from a red cereal box for Jane Goodall when she visited him in 2005. I will miss those special gifts from Grubby.

In mourning the loss of Grub, we also must celebrate his life and continue to provide a home with quality care for the 43 other chimpanzees and orangutans who are here now… in large part because of Grub.

I am grateful to all the caregivers, staff, board members, and volunteers who have helped provide Grub and his chimpanzee family with a happy life at the Center for Great Apes in Wauchula.

And, I am also very thankful for all our members and supporters who help make this all possible each year for EVERY great ape at the sanctuary.

With love and in memory of our dearest Grub,


NOTE from Dawn: If you would like to make a gesture in Grub’s memory, please consider giving a donation to the Center for Great Apes. I think if we “adopt Grub,” Patti will know we do it with love -- for her, for Grub, and for all of the apes at this wonderful sanctuary.