In June 2020, I posted an article entitled “Why I’m Blowing the Whistle on HSUS” in order to raise awareness of the plight of chimpanzees at two sanctuaries run by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) – Project Chimps in Georgia and Second Chance Chimpanzee Refuge in Liberia. Both are plagued by substandard facilities, deficient veterinary care and unqualified management. At Project Chimps, the residents are held in concrete rooms for all but about 10 hours a week because HSUS has not created enough enclosed yards on its “236-acre wooded habitat” to be able to provide the 77 chimps with daily access to the outdoors. Instead of acknowledging and fixing these serious, systemic problems, HSUS has used its PR machine to minimize them or deny that they exist. It has also used its lawyers to silence and intimidate those who speak out.
In May 2020, HSUS inadvertently shined a national spotlight on Project Chimps by suing two women who came forward with credible and extensive evidence of animal neglect. Appalled that HSUS would sue whistleblowers (an intimidation tactic typically associated with big animal ag), animal advocates around the country, including several with expertise in captive primate care, stepped in to support the whistleblowers and amplify their calls for reform at Project Chimps.
Despite not having visited Project Chimps, I believed the whistleblowers – not only because of the evidence they provided, but also because I saw the same problems during my two visits to HSUS’s chimp “sanctuary” in Liberia. There, HSUS is overseeing the care of over 60 ex-lab chimpanzees who the New York Blood Center (NYBC) moved to islands on a river when they no longer needed the chimps for experiments. Despite having received a $6 million check from NYBC in 2017 and hundreds of thousands of dollars in large and small donations from the public since 2015, HSUS has not built any desperately needed infrastructure on the islands.
In October 2020, The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), an organization of animal rights lawyers who represent captive chimpanzees and elephants, took the unusual step of issuing a public statement calling on HSUS to improve animal welfare at Project Chimps. NhRP was particularly distressed by the fact that Hercules and Leo, chimpanzees who they freed from a laboratory, did not have daily access to the outdoor habitat. HSUS dismissed their concerns, arguing that the concrete porches where they spend their days are outdoors.
On March 21st, NhRP marked the three year anniversary of Hercules’ and Leo’s arrival at Project Chimps by issuing another public statement, this time asking its global network of supporters to call on HSUS CEO Kitty Block to provide Hercules and Leo with daily access to the outdoors. NhRP and PETA, which also issued a statement, must have agonized about publicly criticizing another animal advocacy group, but, by repeatedly dismissing the concerns they raised in private, HSUS left them with no choice.
Primate community stakeholders (sanctuary directors, primatologists and veterinarians) are aware of the systemic failures at Project Chimps, but they have not spoken out publicly. That can be attributed to a desire to avoid infighting or, more likely, to a fear of retaliation. HSUS is well known in the animal advocacy community for using its resources to intimidate and silence its critics. It used its lawyers at Seyfarth Shaw LLP, a global law firm with 12 offices in the U.S., to represent Project Chimps in its lawsuit against the whistleblowers. (HSUS ultimately dropped the suit, but not before the whistleblowers spent $30,000 on legal fees, a very large sum for young people earning a modest sanctuary salary.)
Fear of retaliation also helps to explain why former Project Chimps employees, who bonded with the chimpanzees, have been silent for the last year. Their fear of violating their termination agreements, however, could be outweighed by their desire to help the chimps.
A conflict of interest could also explain why stakeholders in the primate sanctuary community have been silent. Many receive monetary and/or non-monetary support from HSUS that they cannot afford to turn down.
Since writing my first article about the plight of the chimps in HSUS’s care, advocates have asked me why HSUS, an organization whose mission is to protect animals, is failing the animals in their own care. I can only surmise, based on my experience at its chimpanzee sanctuary in Liberia, that HSUS doesn’t want to spend the money to transform Project Chimps into a real sanctuary. This frugality is inexcusable not only because of HSUS’s considerable wealth, but also because the organization has raised millions of dollars off of the plight of captive chimps.
Over the past several months, outside inspections that revealed serious deficiencies have left HSUS with no choice but to publicly acknowledge problems at Project Chimps in Georgia, but the organization has downplayed the problems as minor. If HSUS were to acknowledge the seriousness of the problems, then it would be forced to make the necessary investments and to acknowledge that the whistleblowers who they sued were right all along.
Continued public pressure will ultimately compel HSUS to fix the systemic failures at Project Chimps, but shouldn’t HSUS have wanted to live up to its promise to provide a “great home for retired chimpanzees” in the first place?
- Begin constructing additional yards on its 236 acre forested property so that the chimps have access to the outdoors every day instead of every third day.
- Rotate two groups of chimps (instead of one) into each of the two yards every day (one group in the morning, and the other in the afternoon) so that the chimps have access to the outdoors between 4 and 5 times each week.
- Hire an Executive Director who has chimpanzee experience; who instinctively prioritizes the welfare of the animals and who has the respect of his or her peers in the primate sanctuary community.
- Hire a veterinarian and vet tech who have chimpanzee expertise.
- Appoint two people to Board of Directors of Project Chimps who have captive chimpanzee experience and are willing and able to function independently from HSUS.