Animal Rights Activists Protest HSUS Board Chair Susan Atherton Over Cruelty at Project Chimps Sanctuary
Animal rights activists in San Francisco staged a protest at the San Francisco home of Susan Atherton, the co-chair of the Board of Directors of the Humane Society of United States (HSUS), to demand that she and her colleagues drop a lawsuit against two whistleblowers who came forward with evidence of animal abuse at HSUS’s chimpanzee sanctuary in Georgia, Project Chimps.
“We don’t understand why Ms. Atherton is suing the whistleblowers instead of addressing the welfare issues raised by them and 20 other current and former Project Chimps’s employees,” said Bob Ingersoll, a primatologist and chimp advocate who organized the protest. “Perhaps she just has poor judgment, as evidenced by the fact that she proudly wears real fur and animal skin, which flies in the face of the mission of the Humane Society of the United States.”
While pedestrians expressed their support of the protesters, Atherton’s agitated neighbors were less sympathetic, claiming that the activists were targeting the “wrong person” and arguing that the activists were “going about this the wrong way.”
In July 2020, HSUS’s Project Chimps filed the defamation lawsuit against the whistleblowers, Lindsay Vanderhoogt, a founding staff member who resigned in 2018, and Crystal Alba, a veterinary assistant, who was fired in March, 2020, over her ongoing demands for reform. Knowing that the welfare standards would decline further without Alba, she and Vanderhoogt 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.
When Crystal’s efforts to effect change from within the organization failed, she and the second whistleblower, Lindsay Vanderhoogt, posted documentation of these abuses on HelpTheChimps.org.
In February, 2020, Alba and Vanderhoogt contacted the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) to ask for an inspection. In spite of the financial ties between GFAS and HSUS, GFAS made multiple animal care recommendations that echoed those of the whistleblowers and validated their allegations of animal mistreatment. Nevertheless, HSUS continues to assert that Crystal and Lindsay are simply “disgruntled employees” who fabricated the allegations, and it continues to attempt to silence them through a federal lawsuit.
In an Animals 24/7 article about the controversy, reporter Merritt Clifton noted the absurdity of HSUS’s litigation against the whistleblowers even after GFAS validated their complaints. “That’s a bit like getting convicted by a kangaroo court, if you’ll pardon the expression, controlled by one’s own mob; accepting the sentence; and then trying to kill all the witnesses.”
Alba and Vanderhoogt are not the only former HSUS/Project Chimps’s employees who have come forward. In three page letter sent to Project Chimps’s board, a total of 22 “former and current Project Chimps employees, volunteers, interns, and donors” articulated their concerns about “serious welfare issues at Project Chimps.”
In an apparent effort to distance herself from the controversy, Atherton removed herself from the board of Project Chimps in July. However, because Project Chimps is an HSUS sanctuary, she continues to be accountable as co-chair of its Board of Directors.
Protest organizer Bob Ingersoll says that the group plans to continue protesting until Atherton “does the right thing” by dropping the lawsuit and improving the care of the chimpanzees at Project Chimps.