Saturday, August 4, 2012

Honoring requests for secrecy about apes... or not

When should a person keep information secret, and when does the greater good demand a public airing? It used to be a very personal decision, but the explosion of the internet and the ease of posting Facebook comments, or blogs like this, for the world to read ‒ makes the decision tougher. At least it does for me.
I don't know, maybe my family experience drives my aversion to secrets now. Keeping secrets to protect “the family reputation” is usually a tragedy in the making. As a young teen back in the 1960s, I had to live the lie that dad died of a heart attack. Okay, so we didn’t want the world to know that he killed himself, but that decision would have repercussions for decades because family members never got the counseling that would help them sort out the deeply personal issues that ALWAYS come from suicide. I still deal with those issues. So screw the family desire to hide the dark truth. The dead are dead and the lives of the living are at risk.

Lives are at risk. In deciding whether to keep a secret, that’s what it comes down to, doesn’t it?
When it comes to this blog, I want to be sensitive to the wishes of the humans whose lives are intertwined with apes, but what if that keeps the chimpanzee, bonobo, or gorilla in a situation that is harming that animal?
The world of exotic animal ownership is a world of secrets. (If you don’t believe me, get a copy of Alan Green’s book, Animal Underworld: Inside America's Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species for a real awakening.) Since I started writing this blog 16 months ago, I’ve learned about the ape underworld, and I’ve come across more than a few secrets. I am constantly at war with myself, trying to figure out what to tell, what to keep secret, who will be hurt, and who will be helped.
These are some of the decisions I’ve made…
Friday night, I decided to take down my post with the highest readership. Last year's post, “Michael Jackson’s pet chimpanzee, with no support from the family, depends on public donations for food and medical care,” told an important lesson. Michael, with all of his riches, had to give up Bubbles because managing an adolescent chimpanzee as a “pet” is just too damn hard. Chimps grow up, they grow strong and independent, and even a person with Michael's resources can't maintain the fantasy of a chimpanzee companion. Bubbles ended up at a good sanctuary, but who pays for the care of chimpanzees, even famous ones, once they are at a sanctuary? It can be a delicate dance, and my public airing of private financial dealings may be tripping up the dancers. So, because the greatest interest has to be for the lifetime care of this wonderful chimp, I took the post down and replaced it with a new post, Does Michael Jackson's chimp Bubbles miss Neverland?
Great Ape Trust / Bonobo Hope
Regular readers of this blog know of my utter disdain for the Great Ape Trust / Bonobo Hope. This former research facility now deems to call itself a sanctuary, but it is flailing to figure out the best way to care for the bonobos it has left. People have stopped covering up the mess, and started revealing the secrets ‒ although just about everyone wants anonymity lest a certain person decides to lash out at them. A former long-time employee wrote an email that ended up in a lot of email boxes. “Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh's disconnection with reality never ceases to amaze me,” this professional wrote. “For 10 years I've helped create Great Ape Trust and assist Dr. Sue. I've seen her manipulation and deceitfulness for too many years… Her destructive behavior helped destroy this organization and I can no longer be part of Great Ape Trust as long as she is associated with it.”
I recently asked for, and received, copies of the last three years of the Great Ape Trust tax returns. (Under U.S. tax law, GAT was required to give me copies within 30 days of my written request.) A cover letter from a lawyer came with the thick package. “We would hope that, if you are truly concerned about the bonobo colony, you would say nice things about them, because it is now totally dependent upon public support since the founder of the sanctuary is no longer able to finance its program,” the lawyer wrote. “Negative statements, particularly those that are not relevant today do a great disservice to the welfare of the bonobos.” I can see that, to a point. And this is my point: I will refrain, for a while, from writing about the contents of those tax returns, in hopes that Bonobo Hope's board of directors will listen to ape experts and give those bonobos a chance to live their lives as apes. When facility directors go on public radio to declare that the bonobo Kanzi actually speaks in a raspy human voice, surely board members can recognize that it’s time to look for new leadership, or for a new home for those bonobos.
There are so many secrets out there. Until I started writing this blog, I never realized there was so much effort being expended, out of the public spotlight, trying to convince chimpanzee owners to do the right thing, to get the apes out of entertainment, out of decrepit roadside “wildlife parks,” out of dangerous pet situations, out of breeding facilities, out of research, etc., and into sanctuaries or accredited zoos, where they can live as good a life as captivity will allow.
“Dawn, please don’t write about this. Let us try to work things out,” is a request I get a lot from people involved with apes. Most of the time, I will honor the request, as long as I know that honest people are truly trying to do what is best for the people involved ‒ and for the helpless animals who have no say in the matter. Fortunately, there are some wonderful people working quietly but intently to help those apes, and I have no problem honoring their requests for secrecy. There are also many exploiters out there, and if I think there’s a chance they will change their ways, I will consider their requests for secrecy, at least for a while. But the unabashed exploiters who disregard the needs of their apes, and put their welfare at risk? They can kiss my ass.
Update, Aug 11, 2012
Speaking of troubling secrets... I understand the desire to want to hide bad news, but this article by Associated Press' Steve Dubois, about the sanctuary Chimps, Inc., has some troubling aspects. Court: Intern can't sue chimp sanctuary.


  1. Please tell us what you found within the GAT tax returns. Many of us past employees would love to know where the money went.

    1. I'll be blogging about it soon. The tax returns help explain why this organization is in so much trouble now, after living high on the hog with multiple employees receiving six-figure salaries.

    2. Please blog about it soon! The facility is almost broke. If they run out of money, the bonobos will have to go somewhere else. A story about it in the Des Moines Register might help. Secrets are bad things!

    3. I don't know what the problem is with the Des Moines Register. It used to be one of the nation's leaders in investigative journalism, but no more.

      I've started blogging on the tax returns, at

  2. If any sanctuary uses the apes for their own gain, whether it be for money or fame, let's hope someone will come forward and tell all. If the bad sanctuary loses their funding, it would be a good thing. Hopefully, the apes in their care would be placed in reputable sanctuaries, where the apes deserve to be....