Friday, June 12, 2015

Announcement marks the beginning of the end for sales of pet chimps

Today is a day that will go down in U.S. history. It is the beginning of the end of selling chimpanzees as pets or for use in entertainment. In a brilliant (and long-awaited) decision, the Fish and Wildlife Service finally announced that they were ending their split designation on the status of chimps. While they have long classified wild chimpanzees as endangered, they had not extended that protection to captive chimpanzees in the U.S. That split designation -- which effectively ends in September -- allowed chimpanzee breeders to sell baby chimps to naive people who thought they could handle a chimpanzee in their home for 40 or 50 years. These breeders could sell to anyone, compliments of Uncle Sam.

People (like my Aunt Elsie, pictured here) have
owned chimps as pets since the 1950s. With today's
fantastic announcement, the door is quickly
closing on private chimp ownership.
No more! Well, almost. Under this new rule, FWS will require a permit to buy or sell a chimpanzee across state lines -- but FWS will only issue permits “for scientific research related to the species or to enhance the propagation or survival of the species.” Unfortunately, the exploiters don’t need a federal permit if they buy or sell within the state, although state and local laws and regulations may apply.

This new restriction will put the nail in the coffin of chimp trade emanating out of Missouri, where a breeder sells baby chimps and uses the money to support the care of over a dozen adult chimpanzees she holds for more breeding (or because the would-be owners returned their chimp). This breeder is the last one of a nasty industry here in the U.S. Let’s hope she uses her head in deciding what she’s going to do now that her business is limited to sales in Missouri.

The biomedical research industry faces similar restrictions, even as far as transporting chimpanzee blood across state lines. The required permit may only be issued if it helps chimpanzee survival. Researchers in invasive biomedical programs have been reeling from the withdrawal of support previously provided by the National Institutes of Health, and this decision heaps another major requirement on their increasingly onerous regulatory burden.

But we need to celebrate this day for another reason, as well. It is not only the beginning of the end of treating chimps as commodities, it is the beginning of a new beginning of a united effort to give these magnificent captive animals the respect and care they deserve. Look at the chimpanzee defenders who support this decision: the U.S. government, animal welfare organizations, and zoos. The petition that started this process had a strong coalition: The Humane Society of the United States, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Jane Goodall Institute, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance, the Fund for Animals, Humane Society International, and the New England Anti-Vivisection Society. They are all on the same page, striving for the same goals, working together!

Dr. Steve Ross provides pivotal guidance in U.S. captive
chimp welfare.
I know that a lot of the credit is going to go to Dr. Jane Goodall, who wrote a strong letter arguing for “uplisting” captive chimps to endangered species status, but my hero in this is Dr. Steve Ross, the dynamic director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes, at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. Ross was the zoo association’s guiding hand for the FWS petition, and is the behind-the-scenes person who quietly provides guidance, advice, and expertise in just about any area that will make life better for chimps (as a species and as individuals). He is always objective, rarely judgmental, and is trusted by nearly everyone who has ever worked with chimps. He was a major mover in developing the coalition that petitioned FWS for the change, and his reasoned and caring influence will be a major asset as chimp care in the U.S. continues to expand into a new beginning.

I reported in 2011, “FWS is the best hope for giving chimpanzees the respect and protection they deserve. FWS can help the country overcome its legacy of zoo chimp shows and other mistakes.” Today, with zoos, sanctuaries, and the ape advocacy community working together with the federal government, the future for U.S. captive chimpanzees has never been brighter

Friday, May 29, 2015

Join Hare in urging New York Blood Center: Don't abandon chimpanzees for whom you promised to provide lifetime care!

The following is by Dr. Brian Hare, from his petition

Sixty six captive chimpanzees in Liberia, Africa have been abandoned by the New York Blood Center (NYBC) -- an organization with assets of $450 million and major corporate partners. The chimpanzees are in danger of dehydration and starvation. Please sign the petition to urge NYBC to reinstate funding for this chimpanzee colony before it’s too late!

For years, NYBC used these chimpanzees in medical research, infecting many of them with hepatitis viruses. After decades of confinement, these chimpanzees do not have the skills to survive in the wild. They are completely reliant on humans for survival, but despite previously committing to the lifetime care of these chimpanzees, NYBC recently withdrew all funding for the care of the chimpanzees in March. Effectively they have left these poor chimpanzees to suffer from dehydration and starvation.

The New York Blood Center is a large American organization that provides blood, develops blood related products, but it also conducts medical research. In the 1970's, NYBC worked with the Liberian Institute for Biomedical Research to create Vilab II to obtain and breed chimpanzees for use in medical research.

After using and profiting from them for decades, NYBC decided the chimps were no longer needed for future research and retired them to small islands near the lab. NYBC publicly proclaimed their commitment to the lifetime care of the chimpanzees, but walked away from their ethical responsibility when they stopped all funding for the chimpanzees' care.

We owe our thanks to the longtime caretakers who have continued to care for the chimpanzees voluntarily but this is not a sustainable solution for the chimpanzees or their caretakers. Without money to provide for the needs of these chimpanzees, they will suffer from dehydration and starvation.

These chimps need your voice to survive so please sign my petition asking NYBC to fulfill their promise of lifetime care for these chimpanzees. I will also send your messages to NYBC’s corporate partners (Metlife, IBM and Citigroup) to let them know about your concern.

After signing the petition, please visit the fundraising page to donate for the emergency care of these chimps.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

New book reveals amazing details about the Iowa bonobos, other apes, and the researchers who exploit them

“He and his colleagues wrote about the evolution of morality deep in the primate order, about how empathy is alive and well among the apes, and had very effectively shown that humans and bonobos and chimps and orangutans are almost the same in capacities to think and feel. Yet they gleaned their insights mainly by studying apes imprisoned for life in places no one wanted to show me.”

Exactly! Finally, someone understands what has been bothering me about Frans de Waal for the last several years. In a newly released book, SMARTS, author/journalist Elaine Dewar looked behind de Waal’s public facade, and has the guts to call him out.

Even better, she’s looked into the unpaid taxes, court records, and “research” history of the Great Ape Trust / Iowa Primate Learning Center / Bonobo Hope / Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative, and has uncovered details behind the shenanigans that have made them a laughingstock. The fights over ownership of the bonobos, the dysfunction as the ever-changing board of directors keeps kicking Sue Savage-Rumbaugh out of the picture, the continuing funding debacle, and the legal “scorched earth” strategy (promised by Savage-Rumbaugh’s attorney) is so much worse than I imagined.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Ape justice

People can have a schizophrenic view of great apes.

On the one hand, we want to protect apes in their natural habitat, and condemn those who traffic in the black market for the pet trade. On the other hand, we condone Leonardo DiCaprio and others who support the exploitation of captive apes for human entertainment.

In the latest news, we resoundingly applaud the news that a New York County Supreme Court Justice has granted legal standing on behalf of two chimpanzees being used in biomedical experimentation, to force their release to Save the Chimps. (See this blog post from Born Free for the best explanation I’ve seen on the “writ of habeas corpus” excitement.) On the other hand, we ignore the plight of two gorillas living for years in trailers while a defunct language experiment enters its final death throes.

The public has been intrigued by blondes and apes
since King Kong fell in love with Fay Wray in 1933.
Oh, I see the difference. The secretive biomedical industry is made up of evil men committing unspeakable acts, while the open and transparent language experimenter is a pretty blonde who cuddles with her captives. However, the differences may not be as wide as we imagine.

People are trying to free two chimps -- Hercules and Leo -- from a university research program. Some information is out there on Stony Brook University’s research on chimps. Dr. Susan Larson wants to determine if “australopithecine bipedality was transitional between that of apes and humans.” One of her students, Nathan Thompson, is “performing a kinematic investigation of head motion and its relationship to gait in both humans and chimpanzees.” Dr. Brigitte Demes’ current research “addresses the facultative bipedal locomotion of nonhuman primates (capuchin monkeys and chimpanzees) with the goal of better understanding the evolutionary changes related to the adoption of habitual bipedal posture and gait in early hominins.” I assume they are using Hercules and Leo in this research. (Let me clear: I think the research is of questionable value, and it certainly is not worth the life-long price demanded of the chimpanzees and monkeys.)

Now let’s compare this to the information available about Koko and Ndume, at The Gorilla Foundation. We don’t know if any research is being conducted. We don’t even know, for sure, that both of the gorillas are still alive. They have always treated feces-flinging Ndume like shit, but now he has dropped entirely from sight. As recently as April 9, the Foundation was touting its “most comprehensive conservation effort to-date (sic) – featuring BOTH Koko and Michael.” Not Koko and Ndume, but LONG DEAD Michael, who passed away 15 years ago.

Seeing the latest list of Gorilla Foundation employees adds fuel to the speculation about the gorillas. A couple of years ago, in its heyday, the Foundation employed nine caregivers. The information on their website now shows two caregivers (who also handle administrative functions) and a recent high school graduate working as nighttime monitor. That is not a sufficient crew to take care of two screwed up adult gorillas. (It is interesting to note they boast FOUR executives and a personal assistant to the director, in addition to two administrative staffers. Speaks volumes about priorities, doesn’t it?) So, are they understaffed for two gorillas, or staffed barely well enough for one?

I heartily support the efforts of the Nonhuman Rights Project to get the New York chimpanzees released to a safe sanctuary. I wish we could do the same for the California gorillas. Even if we can’t send Ndume to a sanctuary or to a zoo more responsible than his owner (Cincinnati Zoo), I wish we could know that he is alive and well. And that Michael has not come back from the dead.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Keeping the record straight on Great Ape Trust – Bonobo Hope – Iowa Primate Research Sanctuary – Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative

Former Des Moines Register reporter Perry Beeman, who previously wrote glowingly of the dysfunctional Great Ape Trust, has written another puff piece for the beleaguered bonobo facility. In Resurgent ape center looks to expand, allow visitors, Beeman unquestioningly repeats the recycled plans presented as the way forward for the (now called) Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative. 

We’ve heard it before. Over the years, ACCI and its predecessor organizations have hyped almost every single item on their recently unveiled “plan” list. I hope that this time they are truly trying to remove the stigma conferred on them by their previous pie-in-the-sky ideas (Kanzi leading an artist colony, robobonobo, etc., etc.), but the plans, as reported by Beeman, do not inspire confidence.

Will "retired" research chimpanzees join Kanzi for more research?
They “have plans” for “a multi-million-dollar endowment to provide long-term care for the apes”? I hope there’s a donor associated with that plan. They are going develop “a revamped public visitation program”? One hopes they aren’t thinking of re-instituting their carnivals or bonobo cuddles.

I was particularly interested in their plans for acquiring “up to 25 chimpanzees from national primate centers… with possible financial support of up to $425,000 per year from the National Institutes of Health.” So I asked Renate Myles, chief of the News Media Branch, National Institutes of Health about it. She tells me, “NIH has no plans to relocate NIH-owned chimpanzees to the Iowa facility and we do not provide any funding to that facility.”

Let me repeat that: NIH has no plans to relocate NIH-owned chimpanzees to the Iowa facility and we do not provide any funding to that facility.

Jared Taglialatela, the unpaid research advisor for ACCI, thinks “bringing in chimpanzees would allow researchers to compare the cognition and communication abilities of chimps and bonobos on a single campus.” Like the world needs more ape language research studies. To the contrary, we need to end them.

Besides, let me break the news to Jared: the federal chimps are being retired. Period. We’ve studied them to death, literally. So just stop salivating for using them as bait for federal funds. Let them live the rest of their lives in peace, in a sanctuary.

Acquiring and using the chimps to boost their financial fortunes is first on the facility’s wish list. The NIH statement makes it pretty clear that the retired federally-owned chimpanzees won’t be available for Iowa’s latest scheme. Maybe there is another avenue open for chimpanzee acquisition, though… Maybe one of the primate research centers is going to donate some of their non-federal chimps? With a big wad of cash? Jared is, after all, a former research associate with Yerkes National Primate Research Center. And Yerkes recently announced that they were sending some of their research chimpanzees to a zoo in England, and was looking at "additional donation opportunities."

I look forward to Jared’s explanation of how he plans to acquire and use "retired" chimpanzees. I hope he didn't intend to imply that ACCI was getting federally-owned chimps, because that would be misleading. He needs to set the record straight.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Federally-owned retired research chimps are betrayed

Update, Feb. 16, 2015: I removed my original post (Feb. 14, 2015) on the status of the retired federal research chimpanzees. I based the post largely on reporting by CNN. Since then, multiple sources have told me that CNN's report was inaccurate. I have reached out to NIH, for their explanation on why, many months after Dr. Francis Collins announced that the research chimp community would be retired, few chimpanzees have been moved to Chimp Haven, the national sanctuary. I will re-post the article after I've given NIH the opportunity to respond to the CNN article, hopefully later this week. In the meantime, I'd like to apologize to Dr. Collins and the NIH staff for not checking with them first.

Update, February 18, 2015: I heard from NIH, and I am even more disheartened. Here is my re-written article:

Remember the celebration, the pure joy we all felt when the federal government announced in June 2013 that they would retire the federal research chimps? The National Institutes of Health, led by Dr. Francis Collins, would release the hundreds of chimpanzees to sanctuary, so they could live out the rest of their lives in comfort. Finally.

Research chimps are trained to open their mouths for medical exams. Photo by CNN.

Ah, I for one didn't pay attention to the small print. They would "retire the majority of the NIH-owned chimpanzees deemed unnecessary for biomedical research to the Federal Sanctuary System contingent upon resources and space availability in the sanctuary system."

I don’t know who feels most betrayed by the fact, as reported in this revealing CNN piece, that “only six of the 310 research chimps have been allowed to leave government research facilities, and the agency has no timetable for when it will retire the rest to sanctuaries. In the meantime, dozens of the chimps have died waiting.”

Well, actually, NIH tells me that the CNN number isn’t correct. They point out that 66 chimpanzees have been retired to Chimp Haven since NIH made its announcement in June 2013, not six. Also, they say, “as space comes open at the Federal Sanctuary [Chimp Haven], we feel confident that we will be able to identify chimpanzees to fill those spaces without interfering with the selection of the population of 50 chimpanzees for future research.”

And that’s the problem, isn’t it? AS SPACE COMES OPEN

A little over a year ago, in December 2013, I praised Dr. Collins in my blogpost. I made him my Person of the Year. “In a stunning series of decisions that has ended research for most of the federally-supported chimps, this man has turned our image of government indifference upside down,” I wrote. “His support for transferring the use of federal dollars from research labs to the sanctuary system has done more than we had a right to hope to advance the quality of life for these chimps.” My praise was, let us say, worse than premature – it was outright foolish.

When Congress passed legislation in November 2013, giving NIH the needed flexibility within its budget to retire government-owned chimpanzees to sanctuaries, then-Senator Mary Landrieu assured the sanctuary that “this legislation will ensure that when chimpanzees are retired from medical research that they are well cared for and live the remainder of their lives in a natural setting.”

But there is no sanctuary in sight for the chimps sitting in research labs. NIH explained it to me this way:

“The NIH FY 2016 budget request does not include funds for construction to expand the Federal Sanctuary operated by Chimp Haven, Inc. in Keithville, Louisiana… As space becomes available in the Federal sanctuary due to natural mortality [my emphasis], NIH will continue to transfer chimpanzees to Chimp Haven.”

In other words, the federal government does not intend to use its funds to build sanctuary space to house its chimpanzees. They are waiting for chimps to die, so others can take their place. Oh, and they are “continuing to pursue other options for transferring NIH-owned and -supported chimpanzees to the Federal Sanctuary System” -- but they provide no specifics.

NIH did remind me that Chimp Haven accepts donations from the public and philanthropic organizations for construction of additional retirement facilities. Yes, we know that. Organizations and individuals have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Chimp Haven, so they could provide housing and care for the newly-retired federally-owned chimps. Chimp Haven has put that money to good use, caring for over 200 chimps.

It’s plain to see, now, that the federal agency that owns the chimpanzees, that encouraged and supported and paid for their biomedical exploitation for decades, has essentially washed their hands of the troublesome animals. There is no federal money forthcoming for sanctuary.

I could kick myself. I wasn't paying attention. But even as I know it's my own fault for not paying close enough attention, I feel betrayed by NIH. Even worse, did I, through my complacency and ill-placed hopes, betray the hundreds of chimpanzees who have no hope for sanctuary – until another chimp dies and opens up a spot at Chimp Haven?