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.


  1. I can see that it's not easy to decide what is best for Wenka. From my experiences with following the histories and meeting all the chimps at Center for Great Apes,
    twice in 5 years,it seems that once the chimps arrive and can be with their familiar friends or lost family members,they end up being better than ok.
    When we followed Murray and Casey's
    transfer last October to CFGA-the most stress they faced, was being in the truck getting there in 24 hours. I still can't tell if it helped that we were with them the whole trip, and then for the next 5days. The fact that they had each other was the most comforting to them it seemed to me.
    If Wenka is in good shape- like the Cle Elum 7- who were in a worse place than Yerkes- she may really finally have a chance to be a Chimpanzee before she leaves this earth. If she could be transferred to the right place where she could truly have a better life, it might be worth the 24 hours or so of stress she may face, to finally be with her friends once she gets there.

  2. You could be right, Roberta. I just wish that Yerkes would agree to work with objective outside experts on this. My gut tells me that primate centers are feeling under attack right now, with NIH and Congress considering whether to end research funding, so they are afraid of the "slippery slope" of cooperation. They give in on this and "activists" will demand more, is the usual institutional reaction.

    It's a sad day for Wenka, to be in this place, at this time, with political considerations probably dictating her future. I hope I'm wrong. I hope Yerkes proves I'm wrong by reaching out, for Wenka's sake.

  3. I worked at Yerkes from 1984-1991.
    I worked in the great ape nursery and the great ape wing.
    We all loved the animals and took good care of them.I Knew Yerkes very well and I never witnessed any animal being abused or miss treated.
    Even back then there were PETA protesters that would propose there was abuse and miss treatment of animals at Yerkes. Either they were liars or they were feed by PETA propaganda and bought their nonsense.
    I enjoyed my time at Yerkes and loved working with the animal loving people That I worked with.
    Yerke's focus was animal preservation and propagation.

    What I say is true.

    Keith Hilliard

  4. Thanks for your insights, Keith. I can see both sides of the argument. I know there are honest, and heartfelt, beliefs on all sides of the issue.

    I know that my dad and the other chimp trainers loved the Detroit Zoo chimps, but attitudes and practices were different in the 1950s and 1960s. (Still, even for those years, dad's violence was too much.) I have no doubt that Yerkes caregivers did all they could to keep the chimps happy... but I hope we can agree that we know a lot more now about the needs of chimpanzees, especially as they age.

    I wish we could all agree that we must put the needs of research chimpanzees at a much higher level of consideration when making decisions on both individual care and broad policy. But I'm afraid that words can cause a chasm. Saying that Yerkes' focus was "animal preservation and propagation" stands in stark contrast to "taking care of Wenka," if you see what I mean. "Preservation" seems to mean that the chimps are there to serve our goals, while "care" denotes an intention to meet their needs.

    I don't know if this makes sense. But I do truly appreciate your perspective.

  5. I do not believe being in medical research for a lifetime is the best thing for a chimpanzee. I can not support Yerkes, and do not believe they care about their chimpanzees, or any animal they have in their labs.
    It's all about money....