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The Curious Case of the Doubly Endangered Chimps

Chimps held captive at a research lab associated with a US college have gained protection under the Endangered Species Act but now face a new threat in the college’s threat to ship them to a zoo in the UK. Read on to learn what you can do to help bring those chimps to a sanctuary instead.

The Problem

On June 12 of this year, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced that captive chimpanzees would be up-listed from “threatened” to “endangered” status, thereby earning them greater protection under the Endangered Species Act. That up-listing went into effect this week, on Monday, September 14.

Unfortunately, the vivisectors associated with the Yerkes National Primate Facility at Emory University have spoiled what ought to be a celebration by announcing that they intend to “donate” eight survivors of their experiments to an unaccredited zoo in the UK that has no experience in caring adequately for chimpanzees and is only now raising the funds to build the “exhibit” in which the research survivors will be housed and put on display. This, despite the fact that competent chimpanzee sanctuaries here in the USA stand ready, willing, and eager to offer refuge to those chimps.

Here’s how being “exported” to a zoo in the UK rather than retired to a sanctuary in the USA will be harmful to the chimps:

  1. The overseas voyage will be exceptionally stressful and will require an extended period of sedation.
  2. While US sanctuaries have learned, from long experience, how to manage the many medical, behavioral, and psychological problems of chimpanzees who have been used in research, the UK zoo has no such expertise.
  3. The purpose of a sanctuary is to provide refuge and care for animals. The purpose of the UK park is to provide a pleasurable experience for human visitors. Therefore, the urgent needs of these severely compromised chimps would be at all times subordinate to the trivial wishes of human visitors. As the Emory announcement of the “donation” itself admits, these long-suffering chimpanzees will be housed in a newly-built “exhibit” to be viewed by tens of thousands of people each year.


If the decision to bypass skilled US sanctuaries in favor of an entirely inexperienced zoo seems like a slap in the face to the sanctuaries, I’m quite sure that insult is intended. After all, it’s been sanctuaries who have been clamoring for the release of chimpanzees from labs and pressing for captive chimps to be accorded protection under the Endangered Species Act. But this also reminds me of our own ill-fated effort to bring the oxen known as Bill and Lou to sanctuary. In that instance, college administrators refused to release animals to VINE or any other sanctuary, even though doing so would have brought them benefits far in excess of the monetary value of the oxen. This helps to explain why Emory University is going along with this decision, which is contrary to popular support for the retirement of chimps, beagles, and other animals used in research. Even people who do not oppose animal research tend to believe that animals used in this way are owed something like a decent retirement. So, Emory is making this decision knowing that it will be unpopular (unless they are hoping nobody will notice or that people will mistakenly believe that a “wildlife park” that welcomes visitors is the equivalent of a sanctuary).

The decision to “donate” rather than retire the chimps reminds me of another aspect of the failed campaign to retire rather than kill Bill and Lou. At one point, the Green Mountain College president did say that he would consider allowing the oxen to live — but only if they would be put to use in some way that served people, such as by being drafted as therapy animals. Interviewed during a protest at the school, one student made the same point, insisting that the oxen who had plowed their fields for years should be killed and cooked, rather than allowed to retire in peace, because only then would the oxen continue to “serve us.”

So, it seems to me that, in addition to whatever spite Yerkes researchers may feel for sanctuaries, we also may be dealing with a deep-seated conviction that animals exist to serve people — so much so that the most trivial wish of any person always trumps the most urgent need of any animal. At some level, anybody who eats a “Buffalo wing” as a bar snack believes this. The demand that animals who had been used as research tools (or as farm implements) be retired with dignity deeply challenges this mindset, no matter how rationally or politely the demand is phrased.

What You Can Do

And so, while we do urge our supporters to heed NEAVS’ action alert by writing a polite note to the president of Emory University, I think that much more will be needed. If you do write a note, not only keep it polite but keep it short, understanding that they probably won’t do more than count the number that come in — no one will be closely reading and carefully considering your arguments, so don’t waste time going on and on.

Save that time, and those careful arguments, for a potentially more useful task: Playing six degrees of Emory University and then convincing any students, alumni, or faculty members in your social circle to voice their support for retiring the chimps to a sanctuary here in the USA, where they will receive stellar care. Why? Because in order to outweigh the spite and speciesism built into the decision, any consequence that Emory experiences must be substantial. The disapproval of random people won’t be enough — Emory needs to understand that it will lose both donations and academic prestige if it goes forward with this callous transport.

So, sign into your Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or other social media accounts and set about finding out who you know who knows somebody who does or has attended or worked for Emory University. Anything you can do to convince those folks to weigh in on the side of the chimps will be worthwhile. You might want to share this video, which showcases one of the US sanctuaries while discussing the many challenges faced by chimps retired from labs and their caregivers.

You will also want to make sure that it’s true when you tell Emory University that you are paying attention to what it does with the endangered chimps currently held captive on its premises. Make sure this issue is on your radar. As time goes by, we can hope that a coordinated challenge emerges, which may include:

  • local protests at Emory by grassroots groups that may need your support
  • protests at the site of the UK park organized by groups that may need your support
  • legal challenges to the export by animal law or antivivisection organizations that need you to seize any opportunities for public comment

Here’s hoping that we, collectively, can do better for those chimps than we were able to do for Bill and Lou. Being transported overseas into the hands of inexperienced people who would not be able to provide adequate care even if they did place the interests of the chimpanzees over those of park visitors probably will be a death sentence for some or all of those eight chimps, who may already be severely compromised by their experiences at Yerkes. Let’s all take responsibility for getting them to a sanctuary where they will receive the care they deserve.

3 comments to The Curious Case of the Doubly Endangered Chimps

  • Hi – thank you for writing about this. Alice Walker, esteemed author, is associated with Emory University; they have a wing in her honor and she has spoken there, eloquently including the plight of animals in her words (see her speech La Vaca – the Cow on youtube, at Emory.) I wonder if she can be reached out to, to intercede on behalf of these chimpanzees and the cause of compassion? She also has a poem on her FB page about “rising” – relating the plight of all human refugees to the plight of animals needing sanctuary as well. If she spoke out on this publicly, I can only imagine Emory would listen and hear with their heart. <3
  • pattrice
    Rebecca, that’s a great idea — we’ll definitely look into whether that could be arranged.
  • […] we previously reported, the notorious Yerkes National Primate Facility at Emory University intends to circumvent the […]

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