Former Supreme Court Justice Brandeis once said, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.” In other words, transparency can cure a lot ‒ and may even stop the growth of the malignant atmosphere enveloping the bonobos at Iowa’s Great Ape Trust. So far during this latest crisis, however, the Great Ape Trust / Bonobo Hope / Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary seems more interested in burnishing their public image than shining light on the growing problems at the Trust.
In a public statement on September 11, the board explained that this week they are starting an investigation of the charges raised by the Bonobo 12, and it “will be conducted by members of the board, veterinarians and ape welfare experts.” Members of the board are not appropriate investigators, since the Bonobo 12 say “it is our belief that the Board of the Trust has neglected to act in the bonobos’ best interests...” The board cannot investigate itself, at least if it wants to pass the laugh test. And we don’t know who the vets or ape welfare experts are. I’ve reached out to ape experts across the country, and couldn’t find anyone who had been asked to serve. Not from ape welfare organizations, not from sanctuaries, not from zoos, not from research offices. I still haven’t heard from everyone I tried to contact, but I shouldn’t have to do this. If the board wanted sunshine and transparency, they would tell us who will be investigating the Great Ape Trust.
The board should ask a special ‒ unaffiliated ‒ arbitrator to select a blue ribbon panel to truly investigate their entire operation, including financials, ethics, and board responsibility, in addition to all the other issues raised by the Bonobo 12.
In a statement to the Des Moines Register on September 13, board president Ken Schweller announced that they passed a surprise USDA inspection on September 12. Besides the fact that the allegations against the Great Ape Trust do not have anything to do with the cage sizes or paperwork that APHIS inspectors usually check, the sun is not shining. “USDA came out yesterday and everything looked good,” he said. “The USDA report was not immediately available,” wrote the reporter. Since the Great Ape Trust is representing the inspection results to the public, I asked USDA when their inspection agency would release the report.
“Whenever we conduct an inspection, our inspector will share the inspection report with the facility. But USDA does not publicly post that report for 21 days, because of the standard 21-day appeal window. So, we will not release the Great Ape Trust report right now,” Dave Sacks, USDA spokesman at the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, told me. “But USDA has no control over what this or any other facility releases to the press or public. Facilities have the right to release all, some or none of what is on those reports. On our end of things, we post the reports as public information after those 21 days, so long as the facility does not submit an appeal. In that case, we don’t post until the appeal has been settled.”
Great Ape Trust can ‒ and should ‒ release their USDA inspection report, now.
I realize the Great Ape Trust has many more problems than being pestered by a blogger. Now that charges voiced privately for nine months have become “official” with the public airing by the Bonobo 12, the Trust’s insurance company is probably putting a lot of pressure on them. People have to be concerned about any liability associated with Savage-Rumbaugh's interactions with the animals and staff. And with word seeping out of Iowa that Savage-Rumbaugh may be spending about five hours a day at the facility ‒ even though she is supposed to be on “administrative leave” ‒ I wouldn’t blame them for their concern.
Finally, watching Ken Schweller’s public show of shock and amazement would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. Schweller would have television viewers think that the statement from the Bonobo 12 raised issues he had never heard of. (Captain Renault, in Casablanca: “I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”)
But the group made the record clear tonight.
“The Bonobo Hope Board and Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh cannot be surprised by these allegations, as similar concerns have been raised before,” members of the Bonobo 12 wrote in a statement to the media. “In December 2011 many staff members resigned because the board did not act upon their concerns for ape and human health and safety with Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh in the lab. In addition, leadership did not respond to Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh's accusations in the Des Moines Register that the staff had cut the infant bonobo Teco's feet and possibly physically abused other apes, despite email admissions to caretakers that they knew those allegations were false.”
“The Board has indicated that we will be invited to contribute to the investigation, but we are still waiting for that invitation.”
(Statement issued by Megan Buecher, Jen Draiss, Andrea Jackson, Tyler Kasperbauer, Susannah Maisel, Jackie Mobley, Daniel Musgrave, Stephanie Musgrave, Janni Pedersen, Tyler Romine, and Heather Taylor)
It’s still awfully dark at the Great Ape Trust.
For more information, see our Bonobo Hope post.
For more information, see our Bonobo Hope post.