Does a Conflict of Interest Explain why GFAS Accredits a Great Ape Sanctuary that Doesn’t Meet its Standards?
In early 2020, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) asked the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) to investigate detailed allegations of animal mistreatment at Project Chimps, a Humane Society (HSUS) sanctuary in Georgia that is home to 77 chimpanzees. Whistleblowers working at the sanctuary had contacted PETA after Project Chimps leadership dismissed their animal welfare and safety concerns, including the absence of skilled veterinary care, poor safety protocols, substandard facilities and infrequent access to the outdoor yards. They alleged that these and other conditions do not meet GFAS’s standards for accreditation.
In response to PETA’s complaint, GFAS conducted an inspection at Project Chimps in February 2020. Instead of showing up unannounced, the inspectors scheduled their visit in advance and spent just one day at the sanctuary. While on site, they did not review the medical records of the chimpanzees, many of whom had serious underlying conditions that were not being monitored or treated.
Despite requests from advocates and other stakeholders, GFAS refused to release the highly-anticipated inspection report. The only information made available to the public was a list of seven recommendations and a commitment by Project Chimps to fulfill them by August 1, 2020.
GFAS’ perfunctory inspection (reminiscent of the USDA inspections that HSUS has criticized for years), the decision to uphold Project Chimps’s accreditation and the lack of transparency around the report beg many questions:
- If Project Chimps does not meet several of the standards set by GFAS for great ape sanctuaries, then why does GFAS accredit it?
- If sanctuaries are going to leverage their GFAS accreditation for fundraising and promotional purposes, then shouldn’t donors, advocates, scientists and other stakeholders have access to GFAS’s inspection reports?
- Why should the public give credence to the “GFAS-accredited” claim made by any sanctuary when at least one of the accredited sanctuaries falls far short of meeting GFAS’s standards?
- If GFAS’s recommendations were implemented by August 2020 (which would suggest that Project Chimps was in compliance with GFAS standards), then how does GFAS explain the D grade that primatologist Steve Ross gave Project Chimps on its welfare management programs three months later?
In March 2021, GFAS conducted another inspection at Project Chimps after two chimpanzees died. Again, it has not released the report.
GFAS Standards for Accreditation
GFAS sets specific standards that great ape sanctuaries must meet in order to receive its coveted accreditation. Project Chimps doesn’t meet many of these standards. Two whistleblowers who worked at the sanctuary documented 21 examples on HelpTheChimps.org, a website they created after Project Chimps and HSUS repeatedly dismissed their pleas for reform.
Following are two examples:
Veterinary Care: According to GFAS, a great ape sanctuary must have “a written veterinary medical program, including long term preventative medical protocols and disease surveillance and containment procedures, that is developed and carried out under the supervision of a licensed veterinarian who has training or experience in providing medical care for the ape and other species housed at the sanctuary, and who is aware of any specific issues with the health of the apes at the sanctuary.”
Project Chimps doesn’t meet any of these criteria. From early 2017 to mid-2020, the sanctuary employed a veterinarian who had no primate experience and who put no protocols in place to monitor underlying conditions. In addition, he routinely disregarded serious and, in some cases, life-threatening symptoms. Project Chimps replaced this veterinarian in August 2020, but he is back at the helm because the new veterinarian left the organization in March 2021.
Access to the Outdoors: At GFAS-accredited sanctuaries, “great apes are provided sufficient opportunity and space to move about freely and rapidly, and to exercise choice in location so as to reduce stress and maintain good physical condition. Great apes are able to enjoy lives that are as close as possible to that of their wild counterparts.”
Project Chimps does not meet these criteria. The chimpanzees have access to an outdoor yard once every three days for a few hours, weather permitting. For the rest of the time, they are held in concrete rooms. In a letter to GFAS, the director of another primate sanctuary wrote, “Clearly there are too many chimpanzees at Project Chimps if their time outdoors is limited and has to be shared. No chimpanzee should be expected to live without a choice of habitat.”
The whistleblowers assert that the absence of expert veterinary care and the lack of daily access to the outdoors should, in and of themselves, compel GFAS to rescind Project Chimps’s accreditation. Instead, GFAS ignores its own standards. Why?
GFAS’s Conflict of Interest
GFAS has a conflict of interest that compromises its ability to objectively assess Project Chimps, much less rescind its accreditation for failing to meet GFAS standards. This conflict of interest spans the 14 years since GFAS was founded. In fact, it was HSUS that registered the GFAS website in 2007.
Since 2007, many people who have worked at GFAS or served on its board have been affiliated with HSUS. One of the GFAS founders was the Chief Operating Officer of HSUS, and another served as treasurer of a political action committee founded by HSUS. Today, these individuals serve on GFAS’s Board of Directors. A Senior Vice President at HSUS also serves on the board, and an HSUS employee works at GFAS. In addition, one of the GFAS employees who inspected Project Chimps in 2020 is a former HSUS employee.
HSUS also provides financial support to GFAS, according to its 2018 and 2019 annual reports.
If GFAS is comprised of people affiliated with HSUS; is partially funded by HSUS; and has administrative ties to HSUS, then how can it make unbiased assessments of an HSUS sanctuary?
This conflict of interest explains why GFAS continues to accredit Project Chimps despite the fact that it fails to meet many of its standards for great ape sanctuaries.
On a final note, the whistleblowers, grass roots activists and national organizations advocating on behalf of the chimpanzees at Project Chimps know that running a great ape sanctuary is expensive, laborious and uniquely challenging. No one is asking for perfection, but HSUS does have the resources to bring Project Chimps up to GFAS standards. It is choosing not to.