U.S. Lab Chimps Were Dumped On Liberia’s “Monkey Island” And Left To Starve. He Saved Them – Icestech

U.S. Lab Chimps Were Dumped On Liberia’s “Monkey Island” And Left To Starve. He Saved Them

The story of Liberia’s former research chimpanzees is both well-known and contentious. A non-profit blood bank, the New York Blood Centre (NYBC), set up a virus-testing laboratory in the country in 1974, and wild chimpanzees were trapped from their forests and housed within the “Vilab II” facility. They were subjected to medical experiments and were intentionally infected with hepatitis and other pathogens to help develop a range of vaccines.

By 2005, the director of Vilab II, Alfred M Prince, announced that all research had been terminated and that the NYBC had started to make “lifetime care” arrangements for the chimpanzees through an endowment. Over the next ten years, the chimps were “retired” to a series of small islands in a river estuary, receiving food, water and necessary captive care (at a cost of around US$20,000 a month).

Then, in March 2015, the NYBC withdrew its help and financial support and disowned Prince’s commitments. The move left about 85 chimps to fend for themselves. Escape is impossible, as chimpanzees are incapable of swimming well, and many are suspected to have likely died from a lack of food and water.

Although the Liberian government owns the chimps as a legal technicality, the day-to-day management of the chimps and the experiments were carried out by NYBC and it in no way absolves it from ultimate responsibility. But it has used this to distance itself from calls for it to continue funding care. In a statement last year it said it had had “unproductive discussions” with the Liberian government and that it “never had any obligation for care for the chimps, contractual or otherwise”. It has also said that it can “no longer sustain diverting millions of dollars away from our lifesaving mission”.

Understandably, animal rights groups are vocally opposing the blood bank’s actions.

This is not a discussion about the ethical nature of animal testing for medical use. Regardless of how they got there, nobody could argue that these sentient apes do not deserve access to food and water. As a primatologist, I am interested in how a group of semi-wild former lab chimps are now cared for, where they harbour both diseases that could pose a threat to other animals and zoonotic diseases, which may be transmitted to humans.

Thomas and the other caretakers collected funds from New York to deliver the chimps buckets of bananas and lettuce, among other goods, every two days. A veterinarian stayed on the group’s payroll to check on the animals.

In 2009, the New York Blood Center said it was getting hard to pay for Monkey Island. The charity contacted Liberia’s then-president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, for help and received no reply, its spokeswoman told The Washington Post. (A spokesman for Sirleaf declined to comment.)

By 2015, as the Ebola virus ravaged the country, the New York Blood Center notified the Liberian government that it could “no longer divert funds from its important lifesaving mission here at home,” a spokeswoman said in a recent statement.

Thomas stuck to the feeding schedule until the last penny was gone.

He went with the other caretakers from fruit stall to fruit stall, seeking donations — a daunting task in a time of epidemic. One particularly generous neighbor gave him 50 pieces of coconut. The men gathered enough food to keep the chimps alive if not full for a few weeks.

During that period, Thomas remembers pulling up to islands and seeing frantic, desperate animals. They screamed and fought over scraps. It wasn’t enough.

He told the story to whoever would listen, he said, and eventually found a sympathetic ear with connections to Humane Society International in Washington.

The nonprofit group has since bankrolled the care, spending about $500,000 annually on Monkey Island. Meals now happen twice a day. The price grows, though, as the colony does. (Facing backlash, the New York Blood Center agreed to pay the Humane Society $6 million in 2017. At the time, the Humane Society estimated the total cost of caring for the chimps to be $17 million.)

Despite the team of 10 caretakers’ best family-planning efforts, which include vasectomies for males and slipping birth control in sugary milk paste, the chimps have had a few babies. “Very cute accidents,” Humane Society chief executive Kitty Block said.

Over the years, Monkey Island has become a local legend, though some news articles have painted the inhabitants as infectious threats.

“A bunch of ‘monster’ Chimps are living on their own island in a Planet of the Apes meets Resident Evil-style scenario,” read one news story published on an Australian news site.

Thomas rolls his eyes.

The public should stay away from animals that might get spooked and attack, he said.

The caretakers dream of building an animal hospital on one of the sanctuaries, as well as a proper security system to keep people away. As of now, one man sits on a small dock off each island, telling onlookers to scram.

That doesn’t stop fishermen from floating over for a peek, and guidebooks from irresponsibly advising tourists to hitch a ride.

No one can get as close as Thomas. Photos show him standing knee-deep in river water, hugging the chimps he sees as family. He greets them by name: Mabel. Stuart. Juno. Ellyse. Annie. “I’ll be doing this,” he said, “until they die or I do.”


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