Friday, February 8, 2013

Six chimps in Virginia face uncertain fate

First, let’s look at the plain facts…

Curtis and Bea Shepperson have six chimpanzees, as part of their private animal collection at Windy Oaks Animal Farm. They have the same type of USDA exhibitor’s permit as held by the loony Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary. They also have the appropriate State of Virginia permit. BUT they only have county permits for two of the chimps: 15-year-old Toby and a younger female, Sierra. They do not have county permits for the other four.

In July 2010, two chimpanzees escaped from Shepperson’s Windy Oaks Animal Farm, which garnered the attention of Hanover County officials. The Hanover County Board of Supervisors gave Shepperson a two-year deadline to get rid of the four non-permitted chimpanzees, and then in December extended the deadline by six months.

Curtis Shepperson with one of his chimps
Credit: Joe Mahoney / Richmond Times-Dispatch
Shepperson wants to keep Toby and Sierra, but is willing to give up the other four. However, he has told reporters that he can’t find a place for the four. He has also said that county officials have raised the possibility of euthanasia as a final resort.

This is where it gets complicated, at least for me.

Save the Chimps, one of the world’s premiere ape sanctuaries, might take be able to take them later this year, but they will take them ONLY if Shepperson gives up all six – which he refuses to do. Save the Chimps has a policy that individuals giving up custody of chimpanzees must not engage in further commercial, entertainment, research, or pet activity with chimpanzees.

I understand the principle. I understand why Save the Chimps wants to remove all six chimps. But let’s think about this.

Shepperson has met all his legal responsibilities for Toby and Sierra. When he does that, doesn't he then have the same rights as bonobo exploiter Savage-Rumbaugh, to control his own apes? Doesn't he have the same rights as Penny Patterson, who turned gorilla Koko into an unfortunate freak of nature? Is there something I'm missing here? Besides the fact that Sue and Penny are part of the ape elite, and Shepperson isn't, of course. Are his apes more at risk than Kanzi or Teco or Koko or Ndume?

I don't mean to argue, I just want to understand – and I'm having trouble doing that.

Others aren’t as conflicted as I am. A highly respected ape community professional was firm in her conviction. “I do think that if Shepperson REALLY cared about his original two chimps, he would allow them to stay with the group and not split them up, especially if they have a solid chance to go to a good sanctuary like Save the Chimps,” she wrote. “Shepperson appears elderly, and his family will have to place them when he’s gone… so he is really not thinking of his chimpanzees by trying to hold on to the two.”

Shepperson appears to be boxed in. He can’t put them in a dumpy roadside show, even if the thought momentarily occurred to him. His agreement with the county two years ago provides that “any proposed relocation site shall be approved by experts associated with Project ChimpCARE, including, without limitation, Steve Ross."

One noted chimp expert told me that this is “a perfect example of the complexity that comes out of these pet chimp situations.”

As noted by the county, Ross conducted a site visit and made some recommendations for improvement – and Shepperson made those improvements. Ross insisted the males get vasectomized – which they did. But that is not enough, say several chimp care experts.

Good people are looking for an honest solution. Jen Feuerstein, chair of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance (NAPSA) has been engaged in regular discussion with county officials. The other NAPSA sanctuaries (besides Save the Chimps) don't have space right now but, Feuerstein points out, “all are aware of the situation, and are in regular contact with each other, so if anything were to change that would be quickly communicated.”

“The issues at hand are current lack of placement options, the desire to keep the group of six chimps together, and lack of funding for the chimps' lifetime care,” Feuerstein says. “I would characterize the lack of funds as the least of the 'limiting factors' but certainly funds can help alleviate space/capacity issues if enough is provided for capital improvements/expansion at a sanctuary.

I heard there's a possibility that the Animal Legal Defense Fund may challenge the legality of euthanasia for chimpanzees, if the county actually made the threat. I sent a message to ALDF, asking if that is true, but I received no response. 

Like everything else in this case, the question of euthanasia is complicated. If the chimps were in the wild, they would have endangered species protection, but the U.S. (in all its perverted reasoning) has decreed that captive apes don’t have those protections. Who gets to decide when a chimp can be euthanized? Biomedical research facilities kill their chimps. And I imagine owners can decide to euthanize as well. Can the animal control authorities?

I asked the county about their options, but received no response to my inquiry. In any case, it is hopefully a moot question.

“It is not my impression that the county is focused on euthanasia as an option, even though the possibility has been raised,” Feuerstein told me. “They are focused on finding suitable placement. I would characterize the county's representatives as extremely committed to finding a solution that is in the best interests of the chimpanzees.”

Another chimp expert maintains that "private ownership of chimps presents a public health and safety concern and I think this situation is no different.” 

“The only way the community will be safe from that risk is to move all of them... a solution which also addresses our animal welfare concerns," he explains. "Moving four of them solves nothing. It doesn't address the county and the neighbors’ safety concerns (there are still two chimps in the neighborhood) and it actually decreases the welfare of the chimps by splitting that group up.”

That, I think, is the most compelling factor. Chimp welfare. When I come right down to it, I have to think about what is best for the chimpanzees, who have relationships with each other. Sending them to a sanctuary will be tough on everyone – chimps and people – but hearts can heal if they are in good places. Like in healthy bodies that can run free on grass and bask in the sun, surrounded by others of your own species.

I hope that Curtis and Bea Shepperson will give the grass and sun to all six of their chimpanzees. They will find that their own hearts will heal faster knowing that their chimpanzees have each other.


  1. Thank you for the insights, Dawn. Naturally, I must side with the chimps rather than the humans. No matter how this juggernaut got rolling, the facts are no different from many other situations where someone starts out with a pet chimp and winds up with a massive dilemma. ALL SIX must go to sanctuary together. I think a statement to that effect from the Sheppersons would take away all tension - even if it takes a little longer to accomplish. They need to let go.

  2. I agree that, especially, if they are living together, all 6 chimps should go together to an accredited sanctuary. Transition will be hard enough without splitting the group..

    1. The Sheppersons, if they love their chimps, and all chimps could be convinced to make the decision to let them go to an accredited sanctuary- if there was space in one and a financial way to do this. More pressure on the authorities could prevent them from ordering them destroyed.

  3. I stumbled upon this blog (and specific post) while searching for an update on Bea Shepperson, whom I knew when I was a teenager. In the summer of 1998, I worked at Windy Oaks as a volunteer. I cleaned pens, fed animals, and did odd jobs around the farm. I'd had a fascination with apes since I was five, and while most little girls collected dolls or teddy bears, I collected primates. Chimps had been my favorite animal for some time, and I idolized Jane Goodall. I've done a lot of cool things in my life, but working at Windy Oaks as a 15-year-old is still the most meaningful. It hurts me to think that the Sheppersons might be separated from the animals they love so much.

    The summer I worked there, Toby was still young and being raised in the house. I remember Bea telling me, even then, that he would only live with them inside for about three years. "At that point," she said, "he'll be full grown, and he'll be too powerful to try to keep inside. He wouldn't even mean to do it, but he'd be playing around and pull the chandelier right out of the ceiling. You can't keep a grown animal in a house like that." Even then, they knew they would have to build a large outdoor enclosure for him within a few years. Bea showed me where they were planning to put it. I know that no one here is accusing them of this, but I just want it to be known: the Sheppersons are not irresponsible people when it comes to their animals. I believe they feel more connected to Toby and Sierra because they raised them both from infancy, and I can totally understand why it would be hard to give them up. Of course, I also understand the need to move all six together--even though all six have not been in the troop since birth.