3. The Heart of the Season: Weeping for the “Unnatural History” of Chimpanzees (Updated 2X)

~~By InsightAnalytical-GRL

I’m not exactly sure why, by as I get older I’m just as likely to cry at happy endings than I am over sad endings.  Maybe because along the way to a happy ending there’s usually some sadness BEFORE an ending becomes happy…

I find it hard to watch nature shows these days, for example. I love seeing animals living where they’re supposed to live, in the wild and not in cages and I admire the amazing photography and the beauty of the wild but the shows are usually presented in the context that all this wonder is fast disappearing.

I used to watch Animal Planet all the time, particularly the shows about animal control officers.  The Humane Society in New York did fabulous work and some of the officers had a lot of star power. Passionate, dedicated, articulate,  involved in compelling work.  But, oh, there was so much routine cruelty and neglect that finally I had to stop watching.

These days I spend most Friday nights watching Cesar Millan (The Dog Whisperer) and the Dog Town series if it’s on.  Both shows tend to focus on more hopeful resolutions to problems involving dogs and other animals.  I need to see things like that, don’t you?

Last Sunday (12/14) I happened to tune into Nature on PBS by accident.  Within minutes my heart was aching. The show was “Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History.” I don’t think I’ve ever spent an entire hour with chimps, especially chimps that had been used in research in labs for most of their lives.  Some were taken to labs directly from the wild, others had been pets who were no able to stay in homes, and some were performers who were sold after they were no longer needed.

A couple of years ago I head read reports about a research facility that was here in New Mexico, the Coulston Foundation biomedical research lab,  that was being closed down ( subsequently taken over by Save the Chimps.)  I saw it for the first time last Sunday.  A prison for sentient beings, often living in solitary confinement and being subjected to many, many painful experiments. Even though the facility is closed, chimps are still there, with some waiting to be transported to the Save the Chimps cage-free sanctuary, the largest chimp sanctuary in the world.

Ron and Thoto are two of the chimps that were moved out of the New Mexico facility with urgency, when it was discovered that Ron had heart problems. Caretakers wanted give him at least a brief time out of a cage and to make the adjustment easier, his best friend Thoto was moved with him.

The video recounting the journey of these poor souls was so moving that I found myself weeping. (And I wept through the entire program.)  Thoto,  in his first night of freedom, slept outside under the moon.  In contrast, Ron was so frozen in his brutal past life that when he ventured out of his shelter, couldn’t even walk on the grass. Accustomed to nothing but concrete under his feet, he paced up and down before going back inside.

Although it’s not possible to download the video (which is definitely a must watch) you can get some sense of how these old souls lived for most of their lives.  From the show’s site (under “Chimp Profiles”):


Not much is known about Ron‘s life before he was used for research. What is known is that Ron spent most of his life at NYU’s LEMSIP facility. In 1996, LEMSIP closed its doors, but Ron would not be lucky enough to be spared more time in research and was sent to the Coulston Foundation where, according to his medical records, he lived a grueling existence. The many studies he was used for required that Ron be “knocked-down” (anesthetized with a dart gun) sometimes every day for a month. In 1999. Ron was recruited into an experiment called Spinal Dynamics in which researchers removed one of his spinal disks. To accommodate his pain from the experiment, Ron was given 3 days of ibuprofen. When Dr. Carole Noon and Save the Chimps found Ron at Alamorgordo, he was living alone in building 300. They suspect that he’s always lived alone.


You might say that Thoto, a 44 year-old male, has lived the lives of many chimps. Thoto was born in Africa, captured at a young age and sold to the circus. It was probably during his circus years that all of his teeth were extracted. After enduring the emotionally and physically stressful life as a circus chimp, Thoto became a pet for a long time until he was finally sold to a research lab. Thoto, who is one of Ron’s closest friends, now lives a cage-free life at his island sanctuary at Save the Chimps.


The program also featured the Fauna Foundation in Canada. This segment of the show focuses on how a wonderful couple gave up everything to finance this sanctuary which,  after years of refusal, received permission to turn their sanctuary into a cage-free home by building “islands,” inspired by a visit to Save the Chimps.  According to Gloria Grow, who runs the sanctuary with her veterinarian husband,  the islands are critical because:

It just gives them a chance to make choices; to have control. When all of their choices have been taken away I try to give them something. The chimps can choose if they want to go out to the islands and who they want to go out with. But the islands are a place with no bars over their heads. They can come out, surrounded by water and look up at the sky without any obstruction.

The segment included three touching stories.


Like Sophie, Spock was also born in captivity, in Norman, Oklahoma and sold to The University of Montreal to be raised as a human child. With no chimpanzee mother of his own, he had to trust a human mother. He grew very close to other chimpanzee children in his human and un- natural environment. As usual with this kind of cross fostering experiment, his fate included eventual separation from the humans he grew to love and know when the research ended.  Then, sent to a zoo, he lived “ on exhibit” as part of the “animal collection” for the next 25 years until his rescue by Fauna.


Tom was also born in Africa. Like Annie, he should have known the beautiful world of the wild chimpanzee. Ripped from his family, he spent his first 30 years in the cold world of the laboratory. In his 15 years at LEMSIP, Ch-411 was knocked down over 369 times. Completely uncooperative in the lab, he was even knocked down for cage changes. After enduring some 56 punch liver biopsies, 1 open liver wedge biopsy, 3 lymph node and 3 bone marrow biopsies, Tom gave up. Plagued constantly by intestinal parasites, he often had diarrhea and no appetite. When he had some strength, he banged constantly on his cage. Today, Tom lacks the necessary social skills to be a part of a social group – all of the skills he would have learned with his mother and his siblings where he should be right now, in Africa.

Tom’s story is especially moving.  Here’s a description (with pictures) of his first day outside of a cage from the Spring 2006 Fauna Newsletter:

Tommy’s day on the Island was outstanding! He is the oldest resident of Fauna, in his mid forties, but he looked like a young
fellow, stomping very quickly across the grass, heading to the structure, to check it out.
He too did the trip, walked around, tried all the resting places and even looked bored for a
moment, and then the greatest moment came. He looked up at that big old tree on the edge
of that Island. We knew the way he was looking at ‘the tree’, that he had every intention of
giving it a shot. We were kind of panicking now, all the humans, running back and forth,
calling his name, then with the realization that with or without our support, he was going to do
it. We looked at each other and Pat who is Tom’s favorite human friend, said
to Tommy “Go Buddy, you can do it!’’ That was all Tom needed to hear. We
all just stood there, held our breath and watched this dear old fellow climb up
that tree, snapping the little branches carefully while stepping up on the
stronger ones and just kept on going up. It was as though he had done it before,
knew what to do, even though he was now quite heavy, but that wasn’t going
to stop him. He rested at about 25 feet, and then went another 10 feet or so. He
looked very proud of himself, and truly magnificent up there. We were crying,
calling out cheers to him, hugging each other, and feeling a mixture of
emotions, from extreme happiness to complete sadness for all the years that
had been taken from him.

Tommy’s climb was captured in the Nature program. I cried along with Gloria Grow, who wept with obvious joy at seeing Tommy doing something he hadn’t been allowed to enjoy for decades.

Perhaps the most poignant story is that of Billy Jo (video available at the Nature website). He passed away only two weeks after his first chance at being outside of a cage after the islands were finished.


Billy Jo was purchased in 1983 after some 15 years in entertainment. During those years he had his teeth knocked out with a crow bar. He fared no better in the lab. In 14 years at the lab, Ch-447 was knocked down over 289 times – 65 times by dart, sometimes with 4 or 5 men surrounding his cage. To this day, Billy cannot bear to have strangers grouped in front of him. In addition to several HIV challenges, Billy endured 40 punch liver biopsies, 3 open wedge liver biopsies, 3 bone marrow biopsies and 2 lymph node biopsies with no tangible or practical results. He also chewed off his thumbs waking up alone from knockdowns when no one was around to care for him. During one fit of anxiety, he bit off his index finger. Anxious, aggressive, and fearful, Billy banged incessantly on his cage, rocking and staring into space when left alone. Even today, Billy is still plagued by anxiety attacks- attacks so bad that they leave this majestic adult male chimpanzee choking, gagging and convulsing.


Billy Jo left us on February 14, 2006, at age 37.


Billy Jo was one of Fauna’s most famous residents, He was an ambassador for all chimpanzees and for Fauna. For nearly 10 years, Billy was the first face you saw and the first voice you heard when you arrived at Fauna.

Billy was always there to meet anyone new, always available for a social situation, even if not always in a good mood. He had the most unforgettable presence, and the most majestic of looks. Incredibly handsome and extremely charming, he was a very complex character.

He was intelligent and perceptive. He understood so many conversations that he was easy to talk to and simple conversations with him could usually get him into doing things that needed to be done. He would always try to help us once he understood what we needed from him.

Billy was a troubled soul and very confused about who he was and how he fit in. He did not do very well with other chimpanzees, and yet, of course, he was not able to live in the human world either which would have been his choice. This conflict left him alone a great deal of the time. He so often seemed sad about this. Yet, when he was with his chimpanzee family, it would often be a big problem for him as he simply didn’t always fit in.


Billy is a sad example of why captivity — cross fostering, entertainment, and research — is so destructive to the chimpanzee mind, soul and body. Billy is missed terribly by his hundreds of human friends. We only have to see him in a photo or a documentary and we are brought to tears thinking about this very special chimpanzee person.

“ Good night sweet prince”

As Gloria Grow points out, the chimps are all in a compromised state of health, many having been used in AIDS experiments or in space-related testing, as well as other medical research;  they have been robbed of their health through years of what has been described as “torture.” They still suffer even as they find homes in sanctuaries and bond and become families. As she says, they are all living on borrowed time.

If you ever doubted a chimpanzee’s ability to feel the pain of the death of someone they have known (chimp or otherwise), read this small part of the description of what some mourners did after the death of Donna Rae (also in the Spring 2006 Fauna Newsletter):

When the girls went in, there were all five around Donna Rae: Miss
Pepper, Sue Ellen (Donna Rae’s dear little companion for years), Petra,
Chance and Rachel. Donna Rae was now lying on her back but she
had some blood on her lips from the turn she took with Binky. All the
girls were just hovering over her body, examining every part and going
through the very same ritual they did with Annie and Pablo with such
love, tenderness and compassion. We stayed with everyone while all
was taking place. Rachel left brief y and then suddenly returned with a
paper towel in her hand. This was something that had been handed to
her much earlier on, as so often we do. Rachel lay down at Donna Rae’s
head and propped herself on her elbow. For what seemed an eternity
she ever so gently just wiped and wiped away the blood that was on
Donna Rae’s face, cleaning her lips, her nose, wiping her eyes and her
brow. Donna was immaculate when we finally took her from her home
and her family, to “the port where all may refuge find”.

Look into those faces, those eyes.  When you do, you know that you must look into your own heart.

Please consider helping the foundations that work to reclaim life for these deserving chimpanzees.


Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History (The program site has many links to videos, chimp profiles, and a list of organizations and sanctuaries. I urge readers of this article to watch the videos to get a full understanding of what our closest relatives have endured.)

Save the Chimps

The Fauna Foundation

The Gorilla Foundation (Koko.org)

Interview with Gloria Grow, The Fauna Foundation (Transcript, Nature website)

Quebec couple offers chimps sanctuary from abuse (July 7, 2008)

Chimpanzees used for medical testing ‘show signs of torture’


UPDATE 12/24/08

I just got off the phone with the Fauna Foundation.  A lovely woman  took my donation by credit card. I had left a message as she was out of the office tending to the chimps and she called me back.  When she called, she was in the process of giving the chimps their afternoon tea!!!

We discussed the Nature documentary a bit and darned if I didn’t start tearing up again!  She extended an invitation for a visit…and who knows, if  I get back East again, I may just visit Quebec again.  (Last time I was there was when I was a child…so I’m overdue!)  Happy Holidays to chimps everywhere!

UPDATE 12/27/08

Literally a few days after contributing to Save the Chimps and The Gorilla Foundation (the folks who study inter-species communication/signing with Koko and her family as well as working for gorilla conservation), I received lovely membership packets with posters, stories, and postcards and wonderful information about the organizations and the work they do!  Gosh, I am so impressed with these folks who work with apes…Fauna and groups like Save the Chimps and The Gorilla Foundation certainly deserve our support!

KOKO signs Baby

KOKO signs "Baby"