A highly anticipated “Chimp Welfare Assessment” conducted by renowned primatologist Dr. Steve Ross documented inadequate veterinary care, insufficient access to the outdoors and an inexperienced staff at Project Chimps, a Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) sanctuary in Georgia with 78 chimpanzees. The assessment, which examines welfare management programs, spaces and socialization, was conducted in November 2020 in response to public outcry generated by evidence of animal cruelty posted on HelpTheChimps.org by two whistleblowers who worked with the chimps, Crystal Alba and Lindsay Vanderhoogt.
Chimp Welfare Management Programs
In the programs category, Dr. Ross gave Project Chimps a D (67%). This category assesses veterinary services, enrichment, training, safety, staffing and diet. According to Dr. Ross, “There is relatively little veterinary experience” and “veterinary resources are moderate.”
For years, Project Chimps employees and volunteers have privately – and ultimately publicly – raised concerns about substandard, dangerous and inhumane veterinary care. Even with well-documented, specific examples, HSUS and Project Chimps routinely dismissed staff and volunteer complaints about veterinary care.
Dr. Ross also addresses the “low experience level” of the staff, which Project Chimps attributes to a small pool of potential applicants. According to the whistleblowers, however, the experience level is low because Project Chimps has fired several highly experienced veterinarians and caregivers who voiced concerns about welfare issues and replaced them with junior, inexperienced and malleable staff members. Project Chimps claims that inexperienced staffers can learn on the job, but former staff members note that the organization no longer employs experienced managers who can adequately train junior staff.
In the “spaces” category, Dr. Ross gave Project Chimps a B- (81%). This category encompasses the “physical housing of the chimpanzees, including environmental complexity and opportunities for choice.” Dr. Ross noted that “a substantial drawback of the space was the relatively limited access to the outdoor yards.”
According to the whistleblowers, the 78 chimpanzees have access to the habitat for approximately 10 hours per week. They spend the remainder of the time in concrete enclosures.
Even before Project Chimps creates additional yards on its 200 acre property, it could, according to former staffers, increase outdoor time for all of the chimps in the current habitat if management made it a priority.
On occasion, the chimps are denied their scheduled time in the outdoor habitat when a paid tour group is on site. That is because management will put out a chimp group that is more likely to entertain visitors. This was a source of frustration for Crystal Alba, the whistleblower: “Sanctuaries are supposed to prioritize the welfare of the animals, not the amusement of the tour groups.”
Chimp Social Life
A third section of the report grades the sanctuary on the “social life of the chimpanzees living in their groups.” In this category, Dr. Ross gives Project Chimps an A (94%). This score reflects the fact that the chimps live in robust social groups. However, Dr. Ross explicitly stated that he did not observe every chimp at the facility or assess the social condition of individual chimps.
The Release of the Report
On October 24th, Dr. Ross publicly stated that he was finalizing his assessment and would post it on his ChimpCare website in November. That never happened. On November 30th, he posted just a brief synopsis of his assessment and wrote that Project Chimps “has been provided a detailed report.”
Instead of posting the stand alone report, Project Chimps created a new document that featured its own responses to the report alongside a blurry, illegible version of the report itself. Due to public pressure, Project Chimps eventually posted a somewhat more legible version of Dr. Ross’s report, but it is still difficult to read and is “covered up” by Project Chimps’ responses (see image below).
The duplicitous way in which this report has been released reinforces the mistrust that exists among the growing number of whistleblowers, advocates and donors who have been speaking out about the lack of proper leadership and egregious welfare issues at Project Chimps. It also leaves advocates asking several questions:
- Why didn’t Dr. Ross publish the full report on his ChimpCare website in the first place?
- Once he saw that Project Chimps posted a marked up, blurry version of his report, why didn’t Dr. Ross post the report on his own website?
- Given that Dr. Ross is a published, well regarded scientist, wouldn’t he want his peers in the science and primate sanctuary communities to have the opportunity to review the complete report, which is the first one produced using his ChimpCare tool?
In response to some of these questions, Dr. Ross tweeted on December 10th that “it was never communicated that the full report would be public,” but that contradicts the October 24th tweet in which he stated that his report will be posted on ChimpCare.org in November. It also flies in the face of transparency, standard scientific principles and research practices. To assess the validity of research findings, the complete methodology and analyses should be made available for review. Dr. Ross published the equivalent of an abstract.
The assessment conducted by Dr. Ross was commissioned by the Arcus Foundation.
The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries Inspection
In February 2020, about five months before Dr. Ross began his assessment, the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) conducted a one-day inspection at Project Chimps. While HSUS claimed that “Project Chimps invited GFAS to provide an objective outside assessment,” Crystal Alba said that the “inspection was conducted in direct response to whistleblower complaints and under pressure from PETA.”
After the GFAS inspection, HSUS claimed that “the assessment confirmed that claims alleging mistreatment of chimpanzees are unfounded and misleading.” Alba, who was present for the investigation, disputes HSUS’s claim. “The two inspectors did not attempt to hide how unhappy they were about the nesting material, lack of climbing structures, small living areas and more. Project Chimps was required to address these issues as a result of this inspection.”
While GFAS, HSUS and Project Chimps refused to make that report public, Project Chimps did post seven recommendations made by GFAS which corroborated the whistleblower complaints.
In a public statement about the GFAS report posted on August 15th, HSUS wrote that Project Chimps “completed” implementing GFAS’s recommendations. In the same statement, HSUS wrote that the GFAS report exonerated them: “That assessment confirmed that claims alleging mistreatment of chimpanzees were unfounded.”
How can HSUS and Project Chimps claim that welfare issues have been fixed in the same statement in which it claims they didn’t exist in the first place?
Furthermore, if the problems raised by GFAS were, in fact, fixed, then how does HSUS explain the D grade for welfare management programs that Dr. Ross gave Project Chimps less than six months later?
The Internal Investigation
In December 2019 (before the GFAS and Ross investigations), multiple chimpanzee caregivers and sanctuary volunteers began to contact outside agencies because Project Chimps executives and board members refused to acknowledge or address the welfare issues at the sanctuary. In response, Project Chimps announced that it would initiate an “internal investigation.” This investigation was conducted by Katie Conlee, an HSUS employee who also serves as Vice President of the Board of Project Chimps.
According to Alba, “Staff eagerly awaited the results of the Conlee investigation, but they were never allowed to see them. They were simply told that the Conlee investigation found no problems with operations at Project Chimps. When the Conlee report was leaked, we realized that the intent of the investigation was to discredit and silence employees, not to address the welfare issues they raised.”
The leaked report showed that Conlee did document management problems. She wrote, “The investigation has revealed that the root causes of various problems appear to be inadequate management, communications and transparency regarding concerns raised by staff and subsequent decision making.” The whistleblowers and other activists advocating on behalf of the chimps argue that, in order for animal welfare issues to be resolved, the management needs to be replaced.
Assessment Report Raises More Questions
The fact that Dr. Ross’s assessment corroborates the whistleblower complaints about poor veterinary care, inadequate access to the outdoors and inexperienced staff begs the following questions.
1. How do HSUS and Project Chimps reconcile the findings of Dr. Ross’s report with their multiple public statements claiming that chimp care is excellent and that welfare concerns are invalid?
Between 2016 and 2019, approximately 15 employees, volunteers and donors submitted complaints about animal welfare to the management and board of Project Chimps. According to Vanderhoogt, several of the people who raised concerns, including veterinarians, vet techs and caregivers, were fired. Alba, who served as both a chimp caregiver and the staff photographer, was one of them. Many other employees who came forward were “bullied” into silence.
In January 2020, the Board’s President, Bruce Wagman sent an email to employees and volunteers dismissing the complaints. “We found zero actual problems in the chimpanzee welfare area, and zero valid concerns with our veterinary efforts.” Alba notes that, prior to becoming the Chairman of the Board of Project Chimps, Wagman had no chimpanzee experience.
In May 2020, 22 whistleblowers who worked or volunteered at Project Chimps sent a letter to Wagman requesting a meeting with the Board to discuss their concerns. Wagman again dismissed their concerns as “unfounded” and “untrue” and stated that, “we will not engage on this matter with you moving forward.”
Throughout 2020, other former employees of Project Chimps posted testimonials about animal welfare issues, despite their concerns about retribution by HSUS and Project Chimps. The following testimonial was posted on July 14th by Michael Cullen-Bedoya, who worked as a chimpanzee caregiver.
2. Now that the whistleblower allegations have been corroborated by Dr. Ross’s assessment, will Project Chimps and HSUS apologize for suing them?
While employed by Project Chimps as an animal caregiver, Alba documented many of the animal welfare infractions that she observed, including untreated wounds, insufficient enrichment, infrequent access to the outdoors, the elimination of substrate and rushed introductions. When her three year effort to effect change from within the organization failed, Alba, in collaboration with Vanderhoogt, posted this documentation online. Taking a page out of the playbook of the animal agriculture industry, Project Chimps filed a lawsuit to intimidate and silence them.
Even though HSUS held 6 of the 11 seats on Project Chimps’ board and paid the salary of the organization’s Executive Director, HSUS tried to distance itself from the lawsuit, claiming it had no decision-making power. HSUS also refused to condemn the lawsuit, even though whistleblowing is a vital tool employed by animal advocacy organizations, including HSUS.
Angered by the lawsuit and chimp mistreatment, animal rights activists began targeting HSUS board members with protests. Soon after a protest at the San Francisco home of HSUS Board Chair Susan Atherton, Project Chimps dropped the lawsuit.
The Project Chimps lawsuit sent a chilling message to advocates at other institutions who might have come forward to blow the whistle about animal abuse. If a self-proclaimed animal protection organization like HSUS supports the use of litigation to silence people reporting animal abuse, then companies that earn profits off of abuse would assuredly do the same.
Criticism from National Animal Rights Groups
In October, 2020, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), animal rights organization that seeks to upgrade the legal status of animals, took the unusual step of speaking out publicly about the welfare conditions at Project Chimps after HSUS dismissed its concerns about Hercules and Leo, chimpanzees who ended up at Project Chimps after NhRP liberated them from a laboratory in New York.
In its statement, NhRP wrote, “We demand that Project Chimps and HSUS take whatever steps and devote whatever resources are necessary to immediately provide them with daily access to an outdoor habitat, either at Project Chimps or any other suitable place. We also strongly urge Project Chimps and HSUS to immediately take concrete action to enable the other chimpanzees at Project Chimps to have daily access to the outdoors, not two or more years from now, but today.”
In July, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) posted a statement in support of the whistleblowers.
National Geographic Investigation
On July 9th, National Geographic published an in depth, investigative story about the animal cruelty allegations. While it includes statements from both sides, the story paints a grim and disturbing picture of animal welfare that corroborates the allegations of the whistleblowers.
In July, Progress for Science, TheirTurn and primatologist Bob Ingersoll began staging protests at the homes of HSUS board members, including Brad Jakeman (Sag Harbor, NY), Steven White (Santa Monica, CA), Sharon Lee Patrick (NYC); and Susan Atherton (San Francisco).
After Dr. Ross announced a D grade (67%) for animal welfare programs, HSUS was left with no choice but to acknowledges that Project Chimps needs to institute welfare reforms. By stating that it plans to help Project Chimps “prioritize the improvements that are most important,” HSUS unwittingly admits that many reforms are, in fact, needed. Nevertheless, HSUS used its public statement about the report as another opportunity to discredit the whistleblowers that recommended the reforms in the first place: “This independent assessment. .. confirms that allegations of abuse are profoundly off the mark.” Dr. Ross’s report doesn’t address the whistleblowers’ specific allegations of abuse, such as leaving open wounds untreated and depriving a particular chimp group of access to the outdoor habitat for eight months. In fact, Dr. Ross noted on his website that the grades “do not make any attempt to adjudicate past practices.”
In public statements posted after previous inspections revealed animal welfare issues, HSUS similarly spun the results instead of accepting responsibility for the welfare failures. “Multiple reputable parties—including a primate expert with years of experience, a renowned chimpanzee veterinarian, a sanctuary-accrediting organization and several government inspectors—have visited Project Chimps, assessed the facilities, program and animals there and have concluded that the chimpanzees are well cared for.”
Under the current management, Project Chimps has subjected the 78 chimpanzees in its care to gross mistreatment. It has also mistreated its employees by suing whistleblowers; threatening “disciplinary action” against employees who, out of desperation, addressed their concerns with external organizations; firing those with the most experience and bullying others into silence or resigning.
According to former employees and volunteers, the welfare reforms proposed by Dr. Ross in his report can only be implemented under the right leadership — leaders who have chimpanzee experience; who command the respect of their staff and peers in the primate sanctuary community; and who instinctively prioritize the welfare of the animals. In addition to new management, Project Chimps needs to have at least two board members with captive chimpanzee experience.
Until HSUS and Projects Chimps do the right thing, advocates around the country vow to hold them accountable.