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SHADOWS OF FREEDOM: Chimpanzee sanctuaries under fire

Former workers claim that Project Chimps brought in more chimps than it could handle, leading to vicious fights, and they spend 90% of their time in concrete rooms.

DAVID GRIMM: Project Chimps is one of about a half-dozen chimp sanctuaries in North America, all designed to give the primates a more natural life than they had in labs, homes, or the entertainment industry. Founded just 6 years ago, Project Chimps made a name for itself by promising to retire more than 200 chimpanzees—about one-third of all ex–research chimps at the time—from a major biomedical facility.

Yet, since April, about a dozen former workers have alleged that the sanctuary is jeopardizing the welfare of its apes with inadequate veterinary care, insufficient outdoor access, and failing infrastructure. Similar charges have been leveled against two other major chimp sanctuaries, raising concerns about nearly half of the North American system.

“I think sanctuaries are going to be questioned very seriously going forward,” says Cindy Buckmaster, chair of the board of directors of Americans for Medical Progress. When the U.S. government decided to retire its chimpanzees in 2015, she and others in the biomedical community predicted these problems, saying animals would actually fare worse in sanctuaries. The facilities have taken on too many chimps too quickly, Buckmaster argues, and lack the resources and experience to properly care for them…

Project Chimps’… habitat in Northern Georgia…. has been its main selling point, helping it secure millions of dollars in donations as well as the confidence of the New Iberia Research Center, which in 2016 pledged to send all 220 of its chimpanzees here. Yet a website run by former sanctuary employees claims the animals spend “90% of their retirement in concrete rooms,” not much different from their housing at New Iberia…

Former workers also allege that Project Chimps brought in more animals than it could handle, leading to vicious fights and an uptick in stress behaviors like rocking and hair pulling. And they claim the sanctuary’s only veterinarian had no primate experience and that buildings are in disrepair. “There doesn’t seem to be much reason to continue to uproot these chimps, only to offer care that’s worse than they had at the research facility,” says Crystal Alba, who worked at Project Chimps for 3 years before she says she was fired for speaking up…

The accusations… have attracted the attention of animal rights groups. Many have criticized the sanctuary online. One group, in a campaign reminiscent of those animal advocates typically stage against research labs, protested outside the home of a board member of the Humane Society of the United States, the sanctuary’s biggest funder. Signs called him an “animal abuser” and featured photos of a chimp with a deeply split lip…

Primatologist Steve Ross… is in northern Georgia’s Project Chimps to see whether that’s true. The director of ape study and conservation at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, he’s a proponent of sanctuaries and the board chair of the world’s largest, Louisiana’s Chimp Haven. He’s also one of the country’s most respected chimp experts and has published dozens of studies on how to best care for the animals in captivity. By his own account, he has visited every chimp facility in North America, from tiny roadside zoos to giant biomedical operations.

Ross has arranged to arrive unannounced at Project Chimps to try out a new tool he’s developing to assess chimpanzee welfare. Based on what the latest science says these animals need, the approach considers everything from the size of chimp social groups to the thickness of their bedding. The result: a comprehensive report of what a sanctuary is doing right and wrong, as well as an overall score that the public can see…

Former employees have also leveled charges against Florida’s Save the Chimps, where 228 chimpanzees reside. A 3-month probe by a local news outlet detailed allegations including employee fights over how to care for the animals, which may have led to the death of one chimpanzee, and a short-staffed medical department that was slow to euthanize a dying chimp. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has cited the sanctuary for 12 breaches of the Animal Welfare Act over the past 5 years, three for significant violations of medical care.

One former caregiver at Chimp Haven, who spoke to Science on condition of anonymity because of a nondisclosure agreement, raises complaints against that facility as well. She contends that the sanctuary—the only one funded by the U.S. government, and the home of more than 300 chimpanzees—didn’t treat serious wounds and didn’t fix heating issues in older buildings. She also alleges that staff was spread so thin it lost track of a male chimp that drowned in the sanctuary’s moat…

Inspections over the past few years by USDA and the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) have found no major problems at either Project Chimps or Chimp Haven. And although USDA cited Save the Chimps, it has not levied fines. But many experts across the sanctuary world say such evaluations are often superficial, inconsistent, and not tailored to chimpanzees…

Ross’s inspection is much more chimp-specific than that of USDA, whose 336-page guidelines mention the word “chimpanzee” only three times. The agency’s assessments also tend to be brief to the point of obscurity. A recent review of Project Chimps contained a single sentence: “No non-compliant items identified during this inspection”…

GFAS inspections are more thorough than those of USDA, but they’re not made public and not chimp-specific. Ross’s approach is also more scientific, Crumpacker says. “Steve was asking about all of the [bedding] materials we use, and how much each chimp got, in inches,” she says. “GFAS might just say a group of chimps should get 12 blankets a day. And USDA just cares that we wash them”…

At the end of the day, Ross returns to Project Chimps’s main office to talk about next steps with Crumpacker. Photos of more than 200 chimpanzees hang on the wall, with black-and-white pictures denoting animals still at New Iberia. The research center still plans to transfer most of its 123 remaining apes here. “They have been quite diligent in their approach to the care of the chimps,” says Director Francois Villinger.

Ross’s review, announced earlier this week, turns out to be mostly good news for Project Chimps. The sanctuary earns a total score of 81 out of 100, with high marks for its large group sizes and exceptional outdoor space. But the report also dings the sanctuary for the apes’ limited access to that space and for its relatively inexperienced veterinary and care staff… (A full version of the report, with responses from Project Chimps, is available here.)

For his part, Ross says he will continue to refine his tool as he visits more North American chimpanzee sanctuaries, all of which have signed on. He hopes to expand the approach to other types of chimp facilities, and to eventually help create similar tools for monkeys, horses, and other animals. SOURCE…

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