Sunday, October 9, 2011

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.  


  1. If the description of her socialization in the Project R&R link is correct, then a sanctuary might not be an option - introducing her to new chimps would be incredibly stressful, and not necessarily successful. How many sanctuaries have room for another animal who might require solitude?

    Also, at her age, the stress of a drastic change in environs might not be the best thing for her. Perhaps researchers could focus on building on those moments of social connection, and make her life at the lab as comfortable as possible. How these things fit into a line item on a budget is less clear, but it may be the most humane thing to do.

  2. You make some good points, Alexis. I'm worried about the stress, too.

    Since I posted the blog this morning, I've heard from three people who have worked for Yerkes, and their opinions are all different. And I've learned some things from them. Since they want to remain anonymous, I'm going to put arrange their observations into a new blog posting, hopefully for later today.

  3. Consider this, when the documentary "Primate" by Fredrick Wiseman was released, Wenka had already been at Yerkes for nearly 20 years. From the lab worker's current description concerning the total lack of nesting material in the chimpanzee's cages, it appears nothing has changed since the haunting look inside Yerkes was released in 1974.
    In 1997, Yerkes director claimed "sadly, protesters don't understand the importance of AIDS research. Nonhuman primates provide the best animal model for developing treatments and vaccines for AIDS." Billions of dollars later, at least 85 vaccines have been tested on hundreds of chimpanzees, and although almost all of these protected the chimpanzees from HIV infection, none have worked on humans.
    Now, the director of Yerkes is telling us we do not understand the importance of their aging and cognitive studies. In 2007, Yerkes received a $10 million grant from the National Institute of Aging for a five year study comparing 400human women, 25 chimpanzees, and other primates. Yerkes has acknowledged that chimpanzees do not get Alzheimers disease or MCI (mild cognitive impairment). So why use chimpanzees in this study at all? Perhaps a $10 million grant is the incentive.
    Shall we leave Wenka in the hands of the ones who have tormented her for 57 years and trust that they will do better by her? Wenka needs to be released to a sanctuary immediately. Chimp Haven, if they can accommodate her, would be the best place for Wenka.

    Julie Robertson
    Georgia Animal Rights and Protection

  4. Julie, your comments remind me of a blog post I wrote in March, when I learned about the hope in the 1960s of using chimpanzees to bring human fetuses to term. Oh, and curing the common cold, etc., etc.
    Hopes for chimpanzee cures