Many animal advocates know that The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) takes credit for victories achieved by other groups and fundraises on the back of those successes. This happened to me and other grass roots activists in NYC after we secured a $6 million settlement on behalf of 66 abandoned chimpanzees used in research. But what many people don’t know is that HSUS has used – and is continuing to use – outside law firms to intimidate, threaten and sue some of its (now former) employees who, after attempting to effect change from within, have publicly exposed systemic abuses of animals in HSUS’s care, some of which I have observed firsthand.
For the past two years, I have resisted publicly addressing these abuses for fear of fomenting strife within an already fractured animal protection community, but HSUS’s decision to file a lawsuit against two of the 22 whistleblowers at its Project Chimps sanctuary has compelled me to do what many organizations cannot for fear of retaliation – hold HSUS accountable for animal abuse and demand reform so that their sanctuaries are, at the very least, more humane than the laboratories from which the animals were rescued.
I am not a disgruntled HSUS employee. In fact, I have never been employed by HSUS or any other animal protection organization. On the contrary, I am an independent grass roots advocate without bosses, budgets or boards to take into account. I therefore have the freedom – and ethical obligation – to help expose the abuses that HSUS’s Project Chimps is attempting to cover up by suing whistleblowers — individuals who have nothing to gain personally by coming forward.
Over the past several years, many employees and contractors, including caregivers, vet techs, veterinarians and construction workers, at HSUS’s two chimpanzee sanctuaries (Project Chimps in Georgia and Second Chance Chimpanzee Refuge in Liberia) have been so alarmed by the neglect, deprivation and other forms of abuse that they were willing to risk their jobs, financial security and future employment prospects by speaking out. Following is a letter that 22 current and former Project Chimp employees sent to the organization’s board.
Following is the response sent by the Chairman of the Board.
I don’t know why HSUS has ignored the pleas for reform by so many of its own employees. I can only surmise, based on its reputation for prioritizing its public image over of the quality of its work, that HSUS doesn’t want to acknowledge the underlying organizational problems that have enabled these abuses to emerge and become normalized. One of these problems is incompetent management — leaders who have inadequate primate sanctuary experience and/or do not prioritize animal welfare, as explained in the following email.
I believe the Project Chimps’ whistleblowers, including the two who HSUS is now suing, not only because I’ve reviewed the extensive documentation they have provided on HelpTheChimps.org, but also because I’ve witnessed similar abuses, which continue in secrecy halfway around the world at HSUS’s chimpanzee sanctuary in Liberia.
In 2015, the New York Blood Center (NYBC), which conducted research experiments on chimpanzees at a laboratory in Liberia, abandoned 66 survivors on six small islands on a nearby river. After seeing the starving chimps from a boat, an American scientist working in Liberia contacted HSUS to sound the alarm and ask for help.
To its credit, HSUS responded quickly, launching a GoFundMe campaign to raise money and hiring great ape experts with considerable sanctuary experience to oversee the chimps’ care. Jenny Desmond and her husband, Dr. Jim Desmond, who is a great ape veterinarian, put their lives on hold and moved to Liberia to address the emergency.
Under challenging circumstances, the Desmonds quickly improved the quality of life of the abandoned chimps, providing them with daily deliveries of fresh produce, enrichment activities to help occupy their time on the small islands, and birth control. Within weeks of the Desmonds’ arrival, the chimps’ demeanor changed. Instead of frantically running to the riverbanks in search of food when they heard the sound of a boat nearby, they began to peacefully saunter over because they knew that the boat was there for them and that it would be filled with food.
Even though they never met me, the Desmonds invited me to stay with them in Liberia so that I could see with my own eyes the stunning transformation of the chimps for whom we were protesting in NYC. During my visit, which took place in February, 2017, I could see that the Desmonds were doing an excellent job taking care of the chimps, especially in light of the difficult conditions in Liberia. Among the many daily challenges they faced were putting systems in place to care for captive chimps on six islands; managing a staff of Liberians who had just lived through a devastating Ebola epidemic; maintaining temperamental food delivery trucks and motor boats; and navigating complicated local politics. They were also living in government housing in a rural area without many of the basic amenities and necessities that we take for granted like a decent shower, air conditioning, a nearby grocery store, and a social infrastructure. I was impressed and humbled not only by their sacrifice, expertise, and work ethic, but also by how much they cared about the welfare of each chimp, as is so clearly demonstrated in this video:
In 2017, relations between the Desmonds and HSUS began to deteriorate because they refused HSUS’s demand to turn away chimpanzee orphans who Liberian forestry officials brought to them for sanctuary. These orphans were victims of the bushmeat and exotic pet trades. Providing a refuge was vital not only to welfare of the orphans, who had no place else to go, but also to the conservation of Liberia’s wild chimps. Without a sanctuary, the forestry authorities would have continued to turn a blind eye to the poaching of adult chimpanzees and the trafficking of babies.
The Desmonds took a principled stand, and HSUS did not renew their contract, leaving the care of the 66 chimps on the islands to locals who were not capable of providing the same level of care, especially in light of the fact that HSUS was unwilling to invest resources in the sanctuary. As a consequence, the welfare of the chimps rapidly deteriorated.
To make matters worse, HSUS prohibited the Desmonds from visiting the chimps on the islands, in spite of the fact that the chimps knew and trusted them. HSUS was more worried that the Desmonds would document the decline in care than they were about the care itself.
In May, 2017, our two-year, self-funded grassroots campaign demanding accountability from the New York Blood Center (NYBC) led to a $6 million settlement. True to form, HSUS’s Public Relations department in Washington, D.C. issued a press release taking credit for the historic settlement, making no mention of the activists in NYC who made it possible— activists who occupied corporate lobbies, disrupted meetings, and protested at the homes and offices of powerful billionaires, thereby compromising our safety and putting ourselves at risk of arrest and lawsuits. Our campaign, which ultimately compelled NYBC’s largest corporate donors (Citibank, MetLife, IBM) to issue public statements severing ties with NYBC, brought the organization to its knees.
HSUS’s decision to take credit for the victory left the grass roots activists wondering, “What just happened?” However, we accepted the betrayal, in silence, because the chimps were going to be safe – or at least we thought they were.
To add insult to injury, HSUS continued to fundraise off of the abandoned chimps, in spite of the fact that it had more than enough money to pay for their care with the $6 million settlement and the additional hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars it received in private donations and through fundraising efforts on its website and through a GoFundMe campaign.
In an additional betrayal, HSUS hasn’t used the $6M to improve the care of the chimps. In fact, on my return visit to Liberia in November, 2018 (after HSUS severed ties with the Desmonds), I saw for myself not only the decline in the quality of the food and the lack of enrichment activities, but also that HSUS had not yet begun to build the desperately needed basic infrastructure, including holding areas and shelters on each island; an emergency enclosure and veterinary clinic at HSUS’s office; and security posts to protect both the chimps and humans. In fact, in the three years since receiving the $6 million settlement, HSUS hasn’t built even one structure, and the chimpanzees – off of whom they continue to raise money – are paying the price.
Here’s just one example. In April, 2020, HSUS employees darted one of the chimps in need of veterinary care due to a snake bite; transported her off of the island; and moved her into one NYBC’s old lab cages because HSUS hadn’t created a proper holding facility. (HSUS’s office is on the same government property as NYBC’s old lab.) The Desmonds, who live nearby, said that the chimp, Comfort, was visibly traumatized not only because of her injury, but also by the fear that she was going to be used in experiments again.
Had HSUS built the proper infrastructure on the islands and at their offices, then Comfort’s injury could have been easily treated. Instead, she was subjected to surgery and moved back into a terrifying lab cage where she relived her experience as a research subject. After having two amputation surgeries, she died alone in a cage – away from her island family – because HSUS has failed to do its job.
The Desmonds, who remain in Liberia and are running a separate sanctuary with 59 chimpanzees rescued from the exotic pet trade, have attempted to share information about the inexcusable conditions at HSUS’s sanctuary, but lawyers retained by HSUS have sent letters threatening to sue them.
When conditions at the Liberia sanctuary began to deteriorate, I contacted HSUS and the Chairman of the Board, but my pleas for reform fell on deaf ears. They dismissed my concerns and said that I was misinformed in spite of the fact that I went to Liberia twice and witnessed the decline in care with my own eyes.
Given my firsthand knowledge of how HSUS treats its chimps and employees in Liberia, I was not surprised to learn about the abysmal conditions at Project Chimps in Georgia and the lawsuit filed by Project Chimps against two whistleblowers, Lindsay Vanderhoogt and Crystal Alba.
In 2018, Lindsay, a founding staff member and chimp caretaker, resigned from Project Chimps (see video below), and Crystal, a veterinary assistant, was fired in March, 2020, over her ongoing demands for reform. Knowing that the welfare standards would decline further without Crystal, both she and Lindsay continued to advocate for the chimps by calling for outside investigations and sounding the alarm about the abuses, which, at the time of Crystal’s departure, included appalling veterinary care (suspected untreated broken limbs, untreated deep wounds and parasitic infection); barren, concrete enclosures and porches devoid of enrichment where they spend the vast majority of their time; and infrequent access to the outdoor habitat. According to Crystal, one group of 14 chimps had no habitat access for eight months.
Crystal and Lindsay have provided explicit evidence of these and other avoidable abuses on HelpTheChimps.org. The devastating conditions they documented are what we would expect to see in a laboratory that exploits animals, not in a sanctuary that rescues them.
According to a statement on HSUS’s website, the sanctuary-accrediting organization Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) conducted an inspection at Project Chimps in response to the whistleblower complaints and, in its report, made a list of seven recommendations to improve animal welfare. The GFAS report not only validates some of the whistleblowers’ concerns, but it also begs the question of why HSUS’s Project Chimps is suing the whistleblowers instead of thanking them for calling attention to the problems.
In addition to implementing GFAS’s recommendation and reforming the internal political environment that enabled the rapid decline in care to occur in the first place, HSUS needs to acknowledge that the whistleblowers were acting in the best interests of the chimps and pull the lawsuit, including the demand that Crystal and Lindsay pay Project Chimps’s legal bills.
Suing well-intended whistleblowers, some of whose complaints were validated by a GFAS inspection, is an irresponsible, unprofessional and unethical use of the organization’s resources. It’s also cruel and an insult to all of the people making contributions to help Crystal and Lindsay defend themselves in court.
In a statement on its website about its decision to sue Crystal and Lindsay, Project Chimps warns of media coverage about the controversy. Assuming HSUS is unable to kill these stories before they are published, as it is attempting to do, the coverage will likely help to vindicate them.
Amid this controversy, HSUS has posted a statement on its website distancing itself from Project Chimps. This is highly misleading. HSUS hosts Project Chimps’s email accounts, and the Project Chimps and HSUS email addresses are interchangeable (see below). HSUS is the organization’s primary funder, and six of Project Chimps’s 11 board members are either employed by or serve on the board of HSUS. In fact, the Vice President of Animal Research Issues at HSUS is the Vice President of the Board of Project Chimps.
In addition to reforming Project Chimps, HSUS needs to make significant infrastructure and management changes at its sanctuary in Liberia or transition the sanctuary to the Desmonds, who are already running a sanctuary just a few miles away and are well poised to build desperately needed infrastructure for the chimps and oversee their care on the islands.
On a final note, I regret not speaking out sooner. My silence was a betrayal not only of the chimps, who I knew were needlessly suffering, but also of the employees who HSUS has ignored, threatened, fired and sued for speaking out on behalf of the chimps. If HSUS doesn’t drop this lawsuit and prioritize the welfare of the chimps at its two sanctuaries, then I will continue to speak out and to protest, no matter what scare tactics they use in an effort to silence me.