Friday, April 27, 2012

Living with chimpanzees

Over the last year, I’ve gotten to know a wonderful woman. She used to own chimpanzees as pets. I’ve asked her to tell her story, to let people know what is in store if they try to act out their fantasies of having a chimpanzee “companion.” This is the first of what I hope will be a series of posts from my friend, Roberta Herman.
-- Dawn
My husband and I had no idea what we were getting into 25 years ago when we adopted a 3-year-old chimpanzee. We met a man who abusively trained a troupe of chimps to perform in various degrading chimp performances. When this chimp no longer cooperated, the owner threatened to sell her to a laboratory that conducted bioinvasive experiments on chimps, or to a circus where more abusive training for a chimp act was in store. So we took her in. Then we got another young female to be her companion. Then the first girl died and, as fate would have it, we learned of a young male who desperately needed us. We rescued him from an animal park, where they were going to cut open his brain to see if he had rabies. Someone said the chimp had scratched them.

In the years that followed, we learned many lessons. Although we were considered chimp owners, keeping chimps as pets, we ultimately became chimp lovers and advocates for their welfare and survival.
Our chimps today live in an accredited sanctuary. They are living a new life as real chimpanzees which is only possible because many compassionate, generous people helped them get there, against all odds.
In turn, we continue to support the sanctuary and all the apes who have been rescued there. We are grateful to others who have understood the need to preserve and protect these deserving wonderful beings.
It was a huge responsibility to care for chimpanzees in a home. Our lives totally revolved around them and their welfare. We went into total debt, and convinced ourselves that building a place for them, and caring for them, was the best thing we could do for them.
But, they ended up owning us!
We had no vacations, no extra funds, and almost went bankrupt. We were devoted to them 24/7 and I, especially, hardly ever left the house.
Giving a physical to a pet chimpanzee is stressful to the
animal, to the owner, and to the pocketbook.
As they grew older and stronger, the male who was very sweet, but unpredictable, and very strong became a real concern in terms of safety. Male chimpanzees are full of testosterone, and can become dangerous at times. Just having him darted and anesthetized by a special vet, to be routinely examined, was extremely stressful each time. Not to mention the stress when we saw the vet bills!
We found ourselves attending to almost full-grown chimps who had to be properly caged, in order to keep them safe, and ourselves and others safe. Their cages weren’t large enough for them now, and it grew more depressing by the day, seeing the chimps in their confinement. We tried to give them as much enrichment and affection as we could, but it wasn’t enough. We realized that we loved them enough to search for a better place for them. They needed a place where they could play in a much larger environment, with other chimps, and be cared for by a staff of professionals.
After many years, we finally found a space for them, in a sanctuary we had checked out. But we had to come up with funds to get them there and, since we wanted to keep them together, we had to wait until the sanctuary had enough space for multiple chimps.
This guy is just getting his gums checked while he is
under anethesia... but check out those teeth!
We suffered for years in this situation. We lost friends who did not understand why we didn’t just place these chimps. They didn’t understand why we had to decline their social events. They didn’t understand that we wouldn’t leave the chimps alone for more than an hour, even to go food shopping or get a haircut.
We could not bear to hear all the suggestions we received as to how to “GET RID OF THEM.” We cringed at that phrase, as much as to the various remedies people offered, so we could get our “life back,” as they put it. This was our life, and we were determined to do what was best for these chimps. We had assumed responsibility for them, and we loved them so much. “Sell them to a lab, sell them to a Hollywood trainer,” “sell them to a private zoo, a roadside attraction…put them to sleep!”
We were horrified. We were in a grand pickle. We couldn’t build them a larger enclosure/habitat, similar to a sanctuary. By now we knew how much was needed to properly care for them, and we felt the pain of each day, not having a plan for them, and having to clean cages that weren’t large enough for them to swing in properly, or easy to keep clean for that matter. They had gotten rusty and older, along with the chimps, who were now much larger and very strong, making the cages weaker by the day.
One winter, we had to make repairs according to the USDA requirements. We had to bolt down smaller cages in the heated garage, so they could be safe from the paint and fumes for weeks, until the repairs were complete and the paint had cured. Keeping this area clean every day, and staying with them as much as possible all day, was really hard. I thought I would die that year, from the stress of it all.
Please understand my predicament: Chimps share more than 98% of our human DNA. They are intelligent and sensitive, and can understand and feel in many of the same ways that children can. They deserve to be respected as individuals, and are as varied in personality traits as humans are. These beautiful, caring individuals were my responsibility, and I entered into it without the full understanding of everything that was involved.
I don’t want anyone else to go through what I experienced. The laws of the land need to be changed. Breeding and selling chimpanzees like property is a travesty, and should be prohibited. People should not be allowed to keep chimpanzees as pets, as it causes too much pain and suffering for chimps, owners, and, sometimes tragically, for neighbors and communities. It is a lesson I learned the hard way.

-- Roberta Herman


  1. Thank you Roberta, for sharing your story. Your bravery continues to inspire me and many others and I am so glad to know your chimps are doing so well at their new home...

  2. Hopefully, your sharing about the pains and stresses of ownership and responsibility for adult chimpanzees will reach those thinking about owning a baby chimpanzee. Someone may think that they can just place a chimp in a zoo when he grows too big to be a housepet... but the truth is that accredited zoos rarely can accept a handraised great ape. Most pet chimps in the past have been handed off to biomedical labs or roadside attractions when they can no longer be handled by their owners. These options are sad situtaions for chimpanzees who were raised to live with humans... and who think the ARE humans. Those chimpanzees who end up in an accredited sanctuary have a better situation for individualized care, but at the cost of tens of thousands to the sanctuary. Breeders who sell baby chimps as pets, should share in the lifelong responsibility for their future care. Thank you Roberta for telling your story.

    1. I hope someday soon, the cycle of owning chimps as property and pets, will stop, because of new laws prohibiting the practice. If there was no way to buy a chimp, this process would not have a way to continue.

      Roberta Herman

  3. Roberta, Your story is one that needs to be shouted from the roof tops, a message that Congress should hear as well as each state in the US so that laws can change and eventually, private chimp ownership,chimps used for entertainment and those used for bio-medical experiments will cease to exist. It is brave souls like you, someone with your passion and honesty who can help make the changes that are necessary to protect all apes from being used by man in a captive setting. I hope you make this your life's mission. Your personal story speaks volumes so keep telling it in many different venues. What is so wonderful about you and your character is that you would not compromise the lives of your chimps. You waited and personally suffered until you could find then a home together in a sanctuary. That took courage, love and tremendous personal sacrifice. They were two very lucky chimps! Keep up the good work, Roberta!

    Karen Young

  4. Thank you for sharing your story with the world. I know you went through many difficult realizations and had to face some tough choices; ultimately you wanted what was best for the chimpanzees. I hope your story will encourage people to think twice and a third time before they take that cute little baby chimpanzee home. It is not easy for us to admit our own mistakes to others...You are very brave and I am proud to call you friend!

    1. Thank you for all your support .....I will take all your kind words to Heart... in helping myself to find the courage for writing more about my experiences with Chimpanzees...hopefully it will help in bringing a more positive perception of Chimpanzees, as give them the respect, and rights they deserve.

      Roberta Herman