These Chimps Helped Us Find a Hepatitis Vaccine. Now They've Been Left to Die
In March, the New York Blood Center pulled the funding for the chimp sanctuary where 66 of its retired research chimps live.
Image: Agnes Souchal
On a string of tiny islands in the middle of a river in Liberia, dozens of chimpanzees await an increasingly bleak future. The swampy jungle islands provide the chimps no food, no water, and because chimps aren't strong swimmers, no means of escape. The apes aren't from the islands, but for the last 10 years, the islands have been their home. Now they're in danger of starving there.
Placed on the islands by human hands, the chimps rely on human caretakers to provide food and water in order to survive. But earlier this year, the US nonprofit that left these retired research chimps on islands in the middle of the war-torn and Ebola-ravaged African nation of Liberia pulled the funding required to ensure their care. In 2005, the New York Blood Center left its research chimps to retire with a promise of lifetime care on an island. In March, it abandoned them for somebody else to worry about.
The 66 chimps are currently surviving on a reduced feeding schedule paid for through emergency funds pieced together by the Humane Society and the personal donations of a handful of individual conservationists. But they only have enough money to support the chimps' care for a few more weeks.
Now, a collective of conservationists and researchers that includes the Jane Goodall Institute, Born Free, and the Humane Society has launched an online campaign to raise enough money to bridge the gap while they seek a long-term solution and urge the NYBC to reinstate its support. They've launched a GoFundMe page to collect money for the chimps and a Change.org petition to send letters demanding the NYBC reestablish support.
"If nothing happens, the chimps will perish," Betsy Brotman, the former director of the NYBC's research facility, told me. "All of them."
Caretakers bring the chimps food every other day now. Video: Agnes Souchal
Brotman spent 35 years running the NYBC's research laboratory in Liberia, called Vilab II, where she and a team of researchers ran experiments on more than 100 chimps to test out vaccines for Hepatitis. She fought to protect the lab, its workers, and the chimps through two horrific civil wars in the 90s. Over 10 years, as rebel armies battled for control of the West African nation, she had to rebuild the lab three times over. She watched her husband get shot to death in the middle of their home. She even helped negotiate the evacuation of hundreds of women and children during her time in Liberia.
Now 72 years old, retired, and living in New Jersey, Brotman worries about the chimps she left behind. She told me she was horrified, but not surprised, by the NYBC's decision to stop paying to feed the apes.
"The management of the blood center was very different when I first started to work there than it is today," Brotman told me over the phone. "They don't seem to have any sense of responsibility for the animals. You have to know: Vilab brought those chimps to the institute and we permitted or encouraged them to breed. This had nothing to do with the Liberian government. There were no chimps there until we put our feet there."
The NYBC brought the chimps (a mix of wild-captured individuals and former pets) to the Liberian Institute of Biomedical Research (LIBR) in 1975, after securing a contract with the Liberian government to set up the lab. Chimps are the only nonhuman primates that are susceptible to hepatitis B and C infections, but their immune systems handle the viruses better than humans, making them ideal candidates for research. Though testing on animals always raises ethical questions, the research at Vilab (which involved infecting healthy chimps with hepatitis viruses in order to test the efficacy of trial vaccines) led to the development of a hepatitis B vaccine as well as a sterilization method that is used worldwide to ensure safe blood transfusions. The work done at Vilab has undoubtedly contributed to saving lives.
Brotman and Vilab's staff also did their best to ensure an adequate life for the research chimps, housing them in groups in large, outdoor cages. Throughout the lab's history, the small, nearby islands were used as a home for chimps that were no longer needed for research. When the research concluded in 2005, the remaining lab chimps were sequestered on the islands. A handful of Liberian staff who had worked at the lab were paid by the NYBC to continue to feed and water them.
"This is not a longterm solution."
The chimps were sterilized to prevent the population from continuing to grow, but some of the sterilizations were not effective and as a result, there are some juvenile and baby chimps currently living on the islands.
Last year, Motherboard traveled to Liberia to see "Monkey Island," as the locals have dubbed it. At that time, the NYBC was still paying for the chimps' care and the apes appeared to be in good health as they lived out their retirement. But in January, the NYBC, which collects millions of dollars in revenue each year and pays its executive employees six-figure salaries, decided to cut off the approximately $380,000 (according to tax records) needed each year to care for the chimps.
According to the NYBC, when its contract for Vilab expired in 2007, the chimps and their sanctuary became property of the Liberian government and LIBR.
"NYBC had been supporting the sanctuary on a voluntary basis (although NYBC had no obligation to do so) until such time as the Government of Liberia could take over," James Haggerty, a spokesperson for the NYBC, explained via email. "NYBC repeatedly let the Government of Liberia know that they couldn't provide this support indefinitely, but the Liberian government never instituted a transition plan."
Without any transition plan in place, and amid the Ebola crisis, the NYBC issued a letter to LIBR on January 5 to say it was pulling the funding for the chimp sanctuary in 60 days.
When asked about the consequences of pulling funding with no transition plan in place, Haggerty told me the Liberian government had stepped in to pay for the care of the chimps.
"The staff on the ground that currently take care of the chimps are highly competent and are fully capable of caring for the chimps without oversight from NYBC," Haggarty said.
But according to reports from the Humane Society and from the current director of LIBR, Fatorma Bolay, the Liberian government has not stepped in to provide funding and the chimps are surviving off donations alone.
"We continue to feed them from out of pocket donations from some of our research partners working with us at the institute," Bolay told me via email. "This is not a longterm solution. These daily voluntarily contributions may run out. We are still looking for a sustainable long term solution. No group has come up as yet."
In March, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) sent multiple letters to the NYBC, alerting it to the lack of care and urging the center to reinstate funding. As yet, the HSUS has not received any response, according to Kathleen Conlee, the vice president of animal research issues at the HSUS. Conlee told me the HSUS has contributed $25,000 in emergency funding to keep the chimps fed since March, but that the agency can't keep paying to feed the chimps on its own.
"It can't be us by ourselves. We need that New York Blood Center support. They absolutely should be doing this," she told me over the phone. "We're always cleaning everybody else's messes up and they have the capacity here to do right by the animals. They're going to have to."
When asked about the motivation to cut funding, NYBC spokesperson Haggarty told me "these are not easy times for blood centers." But tax records for the NYBC show it has a healthy bottom line. The NYBC claimed $1.5 million in revenue after expenses in 2013, along with $459 million in assets. As one of the largest blood banks and research centers in the country, it also attracts generous donations, including $250,000 this year from MetLife and $5 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
"They don't have the weight they should."
When the sanctuary was first established, the NYBC seemed committed to ensuring there was enough money to care for the chimps until the end of their lives, either through direct contribution from the NYBC, through a trust fund, or through another foundation that might take over. Alfred Prince, the then-head of virology at the NYBC who helped establish Vilab, spent years trying to find a conservation group that could help oversee the sanctuary, but was unable to secure any outside help. He died in 2011.
"A lot of international groups that mind chimps were not interested, I think on principle," Brotman told me. "They felt somehow aggrieved by what had been done by the New York Blood Center with the chimpanzees and they weren't interested."
So the NYBC continued footing the bill for its former research subjects, until this year. For now, the chimps are surviving, but not thriving. Agnes Souchal, a conservationist who runs a chimpanzee sanctuary for In Defense of Animals, recently visited the islands at the request of HSUS to observe the apes' current status. She told me they looked thin, were only being fed every other day, and were not getting fed enough.
"I've not seen them before so it's hard for me to compare but they don't have the weight they should," Souchal said in a Skype interview. "What they need is to be fed at least once every day to start with, but in my line of work, they are fed four times a day: two main meals and two snacks. In the wild they spend at least eight hours a day foraging. They need a lot of energy, they're big animals with a lot of body muscle."
Souchal told me a damaged water system on the islands that used to supply the chimps with fresh water was finally repaired the day before she left, so the chimps have daily access to water, but the money still only stretches far enough to pay for food every other day. The workers, meanwhile, have been working for free since March, hoping to keep the chimps alive and keep their jobs if the funding ever returns.
Though all the groups involved are eager to find a solution, they have been vocal in their belief that the NYBC needs to take responsibility and ensure the chimps future care, and Brotman agreed.
"There is no other option. The Blood Center must find some group and give them funding for the lifetime care of the animals that is not the Liberian government," she said. "This is awful. It's unspeakably awful."
Watch more Motherboard: last summer, we went to visit the chimps on the island: