Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Retired Lab Chimps Pressed Back Into Service: a Houston Press article


Earlier this month, Houston Press reporter Craig Malisow wrote an article, Research Lab Chimps Pressed Back into Service. Masilow does a really excellent job in explaining the Southwest National Primate Research Center's love affair with primate research. (Spoiler alert: the love is not extended to the primates.)

Southwest is part of the Texas Biomedical Research Institute. NIH announced it would be sending about a hundred chimps to Texas Biomedical over the coming months, as New Iberia did not seek to renew federal funding for their chimpanzees. (Both NIH and federal chimpanzee sanctuary Chimp Haven have independently expressed hopes to agree on the development of more space at the sanctuary, to house more or all of New Iberia's retired chimpanzees.)

In the meantime, Malisow's article is a MUST READ, in its entirety.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

The crisis deepens at Great Ape Trust Bonobo Hope

It’s time for an update on the situation at Great Ape Trust of Iowa / Bonobo Hope / Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary, and unfortunately the news is bad.

It appears that Sue Savage-Rumbaugh didn’t like the direction her board of directors was heading, especially as a couple of the more responsible ones left recently, so she has reportedly asked new people to join the board. Well, they are somewhat new. One is her sister, even though she is an employee of the organization. (I guess we can’t grumble here, since putting family members on the ape language boards is a popular move, ala Chimpanzee and Human Language Institute.)

We continue to watch one of the great farces, as Nancy Howell extended the completion date of the "investigation" into charges of Savage-Rumbaugh’s misfeasance, ostensibly to take more input. Of course, the limitations to the investigation seem designed to suit the Savage-Rumbaugh’s whimsy, so no one is holding their breath. 
Mobile Zoo, home of poor chimpanzee
Joel, got an inquiry about taking the
Great Ape Trust bonobos.
It appears that the board, at one point last month, was going to decide to move the bonobos. After the Bonobo 12 went public with their complaints, board president Ken Schweller and others got busy. Where the hell could they put those bonobos, out of Sue Savage-Rumbaugh’s reach? Calls went out all over the country, asking a slew of people if they could take the bonobos. The outreach extended to serious organizations (like one of the country's best sanctuaries), to the adventurous (like Lion Country Safari) to the absolutely ridiculous (like Mobile Zoo, Inc. -- an unaccredited outfit that got this official warning from federal inspectors in June, and that features chimpanzee Joel wearing a wig on its website), and reportedly several others.

(By the way, where is the report of Great Ape Trust’s most recent inspection? Federal inspectors from USDA went out there on September 12, and nothing is on the APHIS website yet. The agency regularly posts inspection reports as public information after 21 days, as long as the facility does not submit an appeal. In that case, they don’t post until the appeal has been settled. Schweller had told the Des Moines Register “USDA came out yesterday and everything looked good.” It’s been 39 days since the inspection. If it was so “good,” why isn’t it available?)

On October 4, Schweller and three other board members met secretly with two of the most highly respected ape specialists in the country, and told them that the board was ready to act responsibly, to save the bonobos from the sad situation they are locked into. I’ve heard that, par for the course for this sorry little outfit, the board members never followed up with the professionals who used personal resources and time to prepare and give the briefing. (Not even a thank you?) It is evident from the silence emanating out of Des Moines (and from the fact that two of the board members resigned almost immediately after coming out of that briefing), that the other two seemed to misrepresent their intentions.

Did Savage-Rumbaugh find out about all this activity? Is that why Schweller and the others have slunk back into their usual submissiveness? It looks for all the world like these board members are just too damned scared.

And let's not even get into Ted Townsend sitting by, leaving his "beloved" bonobos under what he had to know was mismanagement and a toothless board of directors. You gotta love millionaires with throw-away hobbies... 

The last I heard, Schweller was telling folks they would run out of money at the beginning of the year. After the way they have treated the professionals who have advised board members and have offered to help, I wonder who is going to be there to rescue the bonobos when the place goes under? 

No doubt, the real professionals will have to step in at some point… if the bonobos can hold on long enough.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Chimps-R-Us it ain't!


Chimpanzee lovers everywhere are familiar with the t-shirt motif “98% chimp.” It simply and aptly points out the close genetic relationships between humans and chimps. We delight in seeing pictures of chimps enjoying the toys that we played with, or having a birthday party, or acting out in ways that seem surprisingly and lovingly human. With that background, I picked up the book Almost Chimpanzee: Searching for What Makes Us Human, in Rainforests, Labs, Sanctuaries, and Zoos, by Jon Cohen, expecting to be outraged and offended. As someone who looks into an ape’s eyes and sees a spark of humanity looking back, I knew the book’s premise – examining the differences between chimpanzees and humans, rather than the similarities – would cause me no end of aggravation.

Instead, I found myself drawn further and deeper into the science that Cohen presents.

“Goodall was pursuing noble and worthwhile goals, and indeed she, along with Yerkes and other pioneering chimpanzee researchers, deserves much credit for making people more aware of the intelligence, social needs, and emotional depth of our closest cousins,” Cohen writes. “But I think the need to emphasize our similarities has abated.”

Ah, I can imagine my friends’ exclamations of disagreement, even as I write this. Before I read the book, I would have added my own exclamations. (In fact, I probably did at some point.) But hear me out…

I wasn’t totally converted to all of Cohen’s positions (I will never support the use of chimpanzees in research, for instance, and he hints that he favors some research as long as it is approached with high standards of compassion), but the book challenged many of my convictions. That is a good thing, since sound policies in chimp care and conservation require us to consider the depths of scientific inquiry. That deeper examination, compliments of Almost Chimpanzee, reveals differences between chimpanzees and humans that are just as exquisite and profound as our similarities.

I admit that it took me longer than usual to read this book. It is so crammed full of scientific explanations and research findings that I sometimes got loss in the nomenclature. Just when I felt like I was going to drown in unfamiliar terminology, however, Cohen comes through with a story or an interview that illuminates the point of his discussion. In that, he made the science understandable to a non-scientific reader like me.

Cohen covers a wide range of subjects, from brain functions to language to genetics and evolution. On every topic, I learned something new. This was especially true with his discussion of research relating to language. I knew I was skeptical of claims about Kanzi and Koko and other apes involved in language research, but I didn't know why. Cohen introduces the reader to the FOXP2 gene mutation, and he leads us down the path of discovery to how it draws the line between communication and language. He brings in Tetsuro Matsuzawa, who studies both wild and captive chimpanzees, to explain the difference between ape language research and his cognitive research. “Everyone admits that apes have primitive language at the word level. No one doubts that,” Matsuzawa tells Cohen. But, Cohen explains, “the greater claims made by ape language research never persuaded Matsuzawa and most others in the field, because it is not good science. ‘If you do ape language research, you cannot easily repeat what you have found, but I can always repeat my findings in front of you,’ he said.”

Throughout the book, I found facts that startled me (wild chimps have an average life expectancy of only thirteen years!) and answers that had eluded me for years (do female chimpanzees experience menopause?). As the daughter of a Detroit Zoo chimp trainer, I was grateful for his insights into the evolution of the Detroit Zoo, from its status in the 1950s and 60s as chimp show opportunist to their thoughtful (though in some ways very sadly and I would say stupidly mistaken) development of a zoo-appropriate chimpanzee exhibit.

Cohen’s history of chimpanzee research policy in the U.S. is also quite helpful, especially as he dispassionately explains which groups did what, without the self-promotion that one often finds on organization websites.

Above all, I found Cohen’s objective treatment of various sides of thorny issues quite exhilarating. His description of scientist Richard Wrangham is also an apt description of Cohen’s approach to this book. “He behaves, in short, like a scientist – curious, skeptical, intellectually honest, welcoming of criticism, and bound by data… [He] is an unusually humble cook of hearty food for thought…”

I strongly recommend Almost Chimpanzee: Searching for What Makes Us Human, in Rainforests, Labs, Sanctuaries, and Zoos. It is a must read for any ape advocate who wants to explore a plethora of ideas not usually discussed by advocacy groups. It helped me understand the scientific basis for the relationships between chimpanzees and humans, and for the differences that make both of us special. Most especially, it introduced me to a new appreciation for the science that will fill the analytical holes my emotions and assumptions often covered over.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

If we give up reality, we give up the chimps


UPDATE, October 12, 2012: There is some hope on the horizon for New Iberia's 110 chimpanzees. "Given the urgency of the 110 chimps, things are moving along in regards to these issues with discussions among different stakeholders now," a representative from one of the organizations closest to the situation tells me.  It's not transparent, and it's only a start... but it IS a promising development. A resolution that brings more of those chimps into U.S. sanctuaries may contain a way forward for the other federal chimpanzees.

UPDATE, October 18, 2012: From NBC News, Goodall praises NIH decision...: "NIH is considering all options to try and move as many of the 110 chimpanzees to the Federal Sanctuary within the constraints of this timeframe and to eventually move all 110 chimpanzees to the Federal Sanctuary.  In the meantime, NIH must continue to care for the chimpanzees and Texas Biomedical can offer high-quality care until the Federal Sanctuary has the capacity to take all 110," according to an NIH spokesperson.

UPDATE, October 23, 2012: NIH issued its annual report on where federally supported chimps are, and what it costs to support them at the various research facilities and at Chimp Haven (the federal sanctuary.)

Original post ----- It’s so easy to sign a petition. It’s neat to tweet, and Facebook sharing warms the soul. Providing all the housing and care for retired research chimpanzees, however, requires us to go further than that. It demands that we deal with hard facts. I tried to do that, explaining federal regulations and contracts in Build it and they will come, but some people in the ape community find legal issues tiresome and strangely irrelevant to their agendas.

Reality is often inconvenient. The reality for the future of retired chimps is worse than inconvenient. If we don’t get off our arses and unite in a common search for solutions, they will stay in accredited institutions: the labs and primate research centers we are fighting to get them out of.

Under current federal regulations, at least as they are interpreted now, there is only one sanctuary able to provide refuge for retired federal research chimpanzees, and that organization (Chimp Haven) has facilities for less than 150 chimps. We have a thousand chimpanzees who will (hopefully!) need a new sanctuary home. We have to look at the problem straight on if anyone is going to solve this mess.

I’ve never met the man, but I admire Bob Ingersoll. I love people who have a passion for non-human primates. I respect people who throw caution to the wind and dare to tackle the big problems. Last night, he posted a long comment on my blogpost, More chimpanzees to enter 40-year-old language research program. I recommend you read it. His concern is two-fold: some of the not-for-profit groups have chimpanzees groups that are too small for optimal welfare; and we do not have enough accredited facilities built to handle the retired federal chimpanzees. This is what he suggested:
I would like to propose a strategy, a plan, that we all can get behind and make happen and one that could solve the captive chimp problem we now face currently here in the USA. What if CHCI [Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute] and CSNW [Chimpanzee Sanctuary NW] and FAUNA [Canada’s Fauna Foundation] all together proposed a unified effort to move all their chimps to Florida near the two World Class Chimp Facilities [Save the Chimps and Center for Great Apes] that are already up and running in central Florida? That proposal would not only include the chimps who currently reside at the three facilities mentioned. Let’s include the over 900 chimps that right now need a home in the master plan.

What if NEAVS [New England Anti-Vivisection Society] and PCRM [Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine] and HSUS [Humane Society of the United States] and all the other NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and groups and individuals got behind an effort like this? A unified effort to do the right thing and do it ASAP. What if we asked several members of Congress and other public officials, like Representative Kucinich for example, to help make this happen?

We have to start somewhere and what I am proposing is that we all get together and at least talk about what would be in the best interests of ALL the chimps who need a home. All 937, as NEAVS [New England Anti-Vivisection Society] has recently stated. I would love to be part of that plan. Wouldn’t you?

Bob Ingersoll, Project Nim
I think Bob’s idea has a lot of merit. I think we need to try. To start, I'd like to propose a one-day workshop, in Washington, D.C., following the release of the NIH working group's advice (due in January) on the size and placement of active and inactive chimpanzees. Here’s a draft agenda, to get the ball rolling...

Monday, October 8, 2012

More chimpanzees to enter 40-year-old language research program

After my last blog post, Key Out Now: ending the failed ape research projects, I heard from several supporters of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute. I had discussed the Great Ape Trust, the Gorilla Foundation, and the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute in that post, and CHCI supporters definitely let me know that they do not want CHCI mentioned in the same breath as the Great Ape Trust.

“Please do not include CHCI with your criticisms of Great Ape Trust,” said one caregiver who works at CHCI. “I don't think Fouts is mismanaging the chimpanzees in the way that it's pretty clear is going on at the other two places,” an anthropologist observed. (Note: Fouts retired last year from a CWU administrative post, although he is listed as one of the directors of Friends of Washoe.) “To lump CHCI and the Great Ape Trust together was unfair and misleading,” a worker at a sanctuary commented on Facebook.

I agree that Great Ape Trust is in a league of its own, followed closely by Gorilla Foundation. However, I stand by everything I wrote in Key Out Now. I presented the views of ape research program veteran and primate welfare activist Bob Ingersoll, who suggested that the apes at Great Ape Trust and CHCI need to be moved to a proper sanctuary, where they can live with other apes in large groups, and without being subjected to paid public attendance.

I also understand there are two sides to any story, especially when it comes to ape care and management (where there are usually six or seven sides), so I offered to provide an open platform for one of CHCI’s most ardent supporters. She declined my invitation, but as CHCI supporters argued their case, I learned something new. I learned that CHCI is bringing more chimpanzees into its research program.

Now that we know that CHCI plans to bring more chimpanzees into captive research, at a time when many are questioning the value of the language programs, perhaps we should open up the discussion a bit.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Key Out Now: ending the failed ape language research projects


I cannot find anyone actively working in the great ape field who believes that the Great Ape Trust / Bonobo Hope / Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary has a viable future. Nor do I find much beyond sighs and sorrow when I ask about the viability of Penny Patterson’s Gorilla Foundation, which is basically a permanent fundraiser for Koko’s care and Patterson’s lifetime salary. Central Washington University's Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, the last home for signing chimpanzee Washoe, has turned into a sideshow for paying customers. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Penny Patterson, and Roger Fouts are the public faces of failure for the language research projects that started with so much hope in the 1970s.

Most of the public focus this summer has been on the continuing debacle at Iowa’s Great Ape Trust Bonobo Hope, which lost its rich benefactor and most of its professional staff by January 2012. After the Bonobo 12 issued their open letter to the board of directors, detailing the reasons why they feared for the health and safety of the bonobos, some experts in the great ape professional community tried to offer guidance and assistance to both Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and to board members. They did it at their own expense and, it appears, their help was spurned.

I recently learned that two of board members have resigned. Dr. Ed Wasserman, the Stuit Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Iowa, and Dr. Paul Lasley, professor and department chair at Iowa State University’s Department of Sociology, evidently joined the Great Ape Trust Board of Trustees sometime in 2011, according to the organization’s filings with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. In a major blow to any shreds of remaining credibility of so-called “research” at Bonobo Hope, and in a stunning rebuke to the flailing “leadership” trying to pull this crisis back from the brink of financial ruin, the two turned in their walking papers last week, after being briefed on the true extent of the ape management crisis. (I asked both men for comments, and I have not yet received any response.)

Bob Ingersoll and Nim, before Nim was sent to LEMSIP
When did the promise of ape language research fail? What have we learned over the past 40 years? What will happen to the chimpanzees, gorillas, and bonobos who are still subjected to “research” that produces nothing but shrugs and mockery among legitimate primate researchers around the world? One man who has a unique and close-up perspective is Robert Ingersoll and, fortunately, he agreed to share his thoughts. On the record. Now that is one brave man…

You will know Bob from the movie Project Nim. He was a graduate assistant in Roger Fouts’ American Sign Language research program at the Institute of Primate Studies at Oklahoma University during the 1970s, when ape language research was in its heyday. The good times did not last long. Fouts had a falling out with others at OU, and he took his signing chimpanzee Washoe to Washington. The research with Nim ended badly, and the poor chimp ended up in LEMSIP – until he was rescued through an underground rescue effort, with the active support of LEMSIP’s Dr. James Mahoney and Bob. Patterson is still with Queen Koko, as poor ignored gorilla Ndume, a 31-year-old silverback still owned (but evidently abandoned) by the Cincinnati Zoo, lives in an isolated trailer with poor medical care. (USDA APHIS inspectors, according to information from that agency, are currently investigating his alleged lack of care.) And the Savage-Rumbaugh program with Kanzi and others is in free-fall.

I asked Bob to call on his experience in the research programs and his passion for primate welfare, to help me understand benefits of the ape language studies.