A strikingly beautiful chimpanzee named Mae stretches out on the beach with her head on her elbows as she surveys the bounty in front of her. She takes her time at breakfast today, deciding which new fruits and vegetables look most tantalizing. Which might taste the sweetest? Which will be the most fun to open? She doesn't rush her choice as the food delivery boat glides away with the promise of return by dinner time.
In recent months, hunger has been replaced with contentment for dozens of chimpanzee survivors of Vilab II in Liberia. The center was established 30 years ago to develop hepatitis B and C vaccines in collaboration with New York Blood Center (NYBC) and the Liberian Institute for Biomedical Research (LIBR). Liberia's close ties with the United States and large wild chimpanzee population provided an ideal location to build a research facility utilizing chimpanzees as non-human test subjects.
Ultimately, when the chimpanzees were no longer needed, some were sent to bordering countries and others relocated onto six islands on the Farmington and Little Bassa rivers. The island have no natural habitat, food supply or fresh water. At that time, NYBC publicly announced its intention to offer permanent retirement to the chimpanzees, including funding for their lifetime care. For approximately ten years post-research, NYBC publicly declared that they were providing for the chimpanzees, but now all evidence suggests that the chimps were essentially abandoned on the islands, getting food and water as little as two or three times a week.
No One Knew the Chimpanzees Were Going Hungry
It wasn't until last March, when the blood lab announced their decision to withdraw funding entirely, that animal rescue agencies discovered the depth of neglect that had gone on in secret for so many years.
"There was a high level of stress and anxiety among the chimps," said Jenny Desmond who is the Director of the newly formed Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue. "The chimpanzees were not regularly fed but only when food supply was readily available, staff was onsite and boat was working properly. Fighting, stealing of food, rock throwing and inordinate amount of displaying and fear were prevalent at nearly every island."
Desmond details a sordid history of what the chimpanzees here endured. She points to not only the neglect suffered by the animals after they were placed on the islands, but also to the severe suffering they endured as test subjects. Some of the chimpanzees were anesthetized hundreds of times. It was not uncommon for them to have several dozen painful liver biopsies. Many of the adult females watched their infants die in the program. They were indeed prisoners.
In Good Hands Now, the Chimpanzees Are Recovering
Resiliency seems to be a hallmark of the chimpanzees, and in just a few short months of quality care, they have shown signs of restoration of body and spirit.
"Now, many chimps continue their current activities, such as grooming or climbing, as the boat approaches," Jenny says with confidence. "Specific foods can be chosen, sharing of items occurs and some individuals even wait until the boat has retreated to come for food."
The new organization overseeing the care of the chimpanzees is Liberian Chimpanzee Rescue (LCR), with the Humane Society of the United States currently providing all financial assistance, covering operational costs, salaries, and food and care. To learn more, click here for the group's Facebook page.