I am proud to introduce two heroes to you—Jim and Jenny Desmond—two HSUS colleagues who deployed to Liberia to provide life-saving care for more than 60 chimps abandoned by the New York Blood Center and left there to die at the height of last spring’s Ebola crisis in the then battered West African nation.
It was last March, and we at The HSUS faced a terrible set of facts but a clear and easy moral choice. A National Institutes of Health worker, on duty to help the people of Liberia struggling with the dreaded Ebola epidemic, reported to us that the New York Blood Center had abandoned a colony of chimpanzees living on a set of estuarine islands. We rushed in to help, pulling together a relief team, including a number of Liberians who had been providing chimp care under the auspices of the New York Blood Center.
These islands only have fresh water for part of the year, and they do not come close to producing enough natural foods for the chimpanzees. Our team began feeding them every day and we repaired vital water systems. It’s important to note that care for the chimps costs about $20,000 a month, and that over the years the New York Blood Center earned revenues reported to be in excess of $400 million from vaccines, blood cleansing agents, and other products related to their use of the chimps.
During their recent visit to our offices, Jim and Jenny, who at our request left East Africa with their dog Princess (a canine animal care specialist) and have permanently deployed to Liberia to run the sanctuary, made a wonderful presentation about their work to a large group of HSUS staff colleagues. Jim and Jenny are longtime conservationists, and Jim is a wildlife veterinarian. Afterwards, they answered a few specific questions for our broader HSUS audience.
What was the condition of the chimpanzees like when you first stepped in to supervise their care?
The chimpanzees were very clearly desperate for food, water and attention. For months they’d received very little. Even prior to NYBC’s complete abandonment, these chimpanzees had only been fed every other day at most, and were only offered basic fruits and vegetables and often did not get sufficient fresh water. The desperation was obvious on their faces and in their body language when we arrived on the boat.
What are the long-term health challenges for this population of chimpanzees?
Considering the extremely difficult lives these chimpanzees have led, with 10-30 years of invasive research being performed on them and forced isolation with cramped quarters, a chronically stressful environment, and poor treatment, the chimpanzees are at high risk for all kinds of physical and emotional illnesses. The remaining chimps are the survivors, with over 400 others estimated to have died throughout the research and even following their move to these islands. For chimpanzees like Samantha, who is now 41, we will do all that we can to give them high quality care and will likely see improvements in their welfare, but there will probably always be some level of hair loss, poor body condition, emotional issues and low weight in comparison to healthy chimpanzees. Sadly, these chimps will most likely die at a younger age. We will do all that we can to ensure all of them are as healthy and happy as possible for the rest of their lives!
You rehired some of the people who had worked for NYBC at the site, but obviously, there are differences in your approach. How has that been working out?
The Liberian team is thrilled not only to be employed but to serve this bigger humane initiative. It was not only the chimpanzees who were abandoned by New York Blood Center, but the workers as well. They are extremely grateful to The HSUS, Humane Society International, and generous donors who have made their jobs and work possible again. The differences in approach have been greatly welcomed. We have tried to ensure that changes being made benefit everyone and make the teams’ work easier and more efficient. In addition, the caregivers especially have been able to see the changes in the chimps’ happiness and trust in their care—this has been a wonderful experience for everyone involved!
What is the range of general attitudes toward chimpanzees and their conservation in Liberia?
The attitudes toward chimpanzees and their conservation in Liberia ranges from indifferent to highly concerned. We know that killing of chimpanzees for bush meat and the live pet trade is still occurring. Combatting this is obviously a top priority in our work there. However, in the greater community and at government levels, we have experienced an extremely positive response to discussions surrounding stepped up conservation activities. In fact, in just the few months since our arriving in Liberia to assist, the Forestry Development Authority has completely supported our efforts, agreed to partner in the work, and for the first time been able to confiscate illegally held “pet” chimpanzees. We feel changing attitudes will come in time with the commitment of all involved.
What are the greatest challenges to carrying out such a project in Liberia today?
Liberia has had a difficult history and the recent Ebola crisis has created instability and tragedy throughout the country. Priorities had to shift and the focus has understandably been on the resolution of this crisis. However, the disease is now contained and widespread political, financial, and logistical support is now on the ground, bringing new hope to the country. With this turnaround, we believe that recent conservation initiatives put into place before the crisis, can now be implemented. Our meetings with local government entities and NGOs have been encouraging and we have experienced a high level of dedication from everyone in the conservation field.
Enhanced conservation efforts have a large role to play in Liberia’s recovery, with potential for strong impacts on public health and the economy as well as for the well-being of animals. Please join me in thanking these selfless animal crusaders, who have done so much to help these neglected animal castaways. And if you can, please make a donation to support our continuing relief and care effort for them.