On July 25th, animal rights activists staged a protest in front of a clothing store in Sag Harbor, New York that is co-owned by a member of the Board of Directors of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). The protesters demanded that the board member, Brad Jakeman, and his colleagues drop the lawsuit filed against two chimpanzee caregivers who blew the whistle about animal abuse at Project Chimps, HSUS’s chimpanzee sanctuary in Georgia.
While still employed by Project Chimps as an animal caregiver, Crystal Alba, one of the whistleblowers who HSUS is suing, meticulously documented inexcusably poor veterinary care, infrequent access to the outdoors, overcrowding, rushed introductions, a lack of sufficient enrichment when the chimps are confined to their concrete enclosures and other forms of neglect and deprivation. 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.
At HSUS’s chimpanzee sanctuary, Project Chimps, the chimpanzees spend all but 10 hours a week in concrete enclosures
In February, 2020, Crystal 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 intimidate and silence them through a defamation lawsuit.
Project Chimps, an HSUS chimpanzee sanctuary in Georgia, is suing former chimpanzee caregivers Crystal Alba and Lindsay Vanderhoogt after they came forward publicly with evidence of animal cruelty
On July 9th, National Geographic published an in depth, investigative story about the animal cruelty allegations and the lawsuit against the whistleblowers. 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.
On July 9th, National Geographic published an in depth investigation that corroborated the whistleblowers’ allegations of animal abuse at Project Chimps, an HSUS chimpanzee sanctuary in Georgia
Activists staged the protest against Brad Jakeman only after he ignored their efforts to talk to him. In addition to sending Mr. Jakeman emails, activists hand delivered a letter to his store several weeks before the protest. Organizers will continue protesting Mr. Jakeman’s store, Ryland Life Equipment (which, as an aside, sells leather, wool, cashmere and suede), until the Humane Society of the United States drops the lawsuit against the whistleblowers and demonstrates that it is improving the welfare of the chimps.
Animal rights activist protest HSUS board member Brad Jakeman at Ryland Life Equipment, the clothing store that he co-owns in Sag Harbor, New York.
The Southampton Press published a lengthy story about the protest
The Southampton Press published a lengthy story about the the protest targeting Brad Jakeman
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.
Click image to read letter to Project Chimps signed by 22 whistleblowers who are former and current employees
Following is the response sent by the Chairman of the Board.
Project Chimps response to letter written by 22 current and former employees
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.
Testimony of a Project Chimps contractor
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.
The Project Chimps whistleblowers meticulously documented the decline in care and their efforts to help the chimps
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 took credit for a $6M settlement with the New York Blood Center in spite of the fact that it played virtually no role in securing it.
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.
After Comfort was bitten by a snake on one of the islands, HSUS darted her and moved her into one of the old concrete enclosures where she lived when she was used in experiments by the NY Blood Center. HSUS has inexplicably not built a holding area for sick and injured chimpanzees in spite of receiving over $6M for their care.
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.
Jenny Desmond and Dr. Jim Desmond of Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue & Protection
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.
The whistleblowers documented the decline in care over time.
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.
Improper pain management and delayed treatment are among the vet care problems identified by the whistleblowers
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.
The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) made some of the same recommendations as the whistleblowers to to improve the welfare of the chimps
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.
Excerpt from Project Chimps statement about whistleblowers
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.
When Leo was kidnapped from the forest of Liberia, the confused and traumatized baby chimp had no way of knowing whether or not he would ever see members of his own species again. That uncertainty might explain why he beamed with joy as other young chimps greeted him with hugs upon his arrival at Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue & Protection (LCRP), a chimp sanctuary in the West African country.
“Watching the our juvenile chimp group embrace Leo with so much affection was a feast for the eyes” said Jenny Desmond, the founder of LCRP. “Moments like this serve as an important reminder of why we moved to Liberia in 2015 and why we are moving mountains to transfer all 40 of the orphans in our care to a permanent sanctuary in the forest.”
The chimpanzee orphans at LCRP’s sanctuary are victims of the bushmeat and illegal pet trade. In every case, poachers killed their mothers in the forest and sold – or attempted to sell – them to private individuals as pets or to zoos. While many chimps are never rescued, about 20 are confiscated by LCRP staff or wildlife authorities each year and brought to the sanctuary where they receive around the clock care from surrogate parents until they can be fully integrated into a chimpanzee group.
In spite of government efforts to curb chimpanzee hunting and trafficking, poachers continue to kill adult chimpanzees for bushmeat and sell their children on the black market. Part of LCRP’s mission is to increase penalties so that poachers stay out of the forests, thus allowing Liberia’s remaining wild chimpanzee population to live safely in their natural habitat. In the meantime, LCRP will continue to adopt orphaned chimpanzees and provide them with lifelong care.
At the moment, LCRP’s 40 chimpanzees are living in substandard enclosures on government property in a heavily populated village. In 2018, Jenny and Jim Desmond, the founders of LCRP, leased a tract of land in the forest on which to build a sanctuary from the ground up. Now they are working to raise $3 million for the build out.
“For their safety and well-being, we have to move these chimps out of these enclosures and into a forest setting so that they can live away from the public and in as natural a setting as possible,” said Ms. Desmond. “In order to break ground, we have to raise an additional $500,000 dollars. If you have the means, please make a contribution.”
When chimpanzee rescuer Jenny Desmond heard that exotic pet traffickers were attempting to sell a baby in Monrovia (the capital of Liberia), she swung into action, working with local wildlife authorities to both rescue the chimp and capture the perpetrator. Desmond, who runs Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue and Protection (LCRP) with her husband Jim, set up a sting operation to lure the trafficker onto her property; document him asking for money; and have him arrested by the Forestry Development Authority (FDA), the government agency that enforces Liberia’s wildlife laws. Desmond captured the sting on camera:
The trafficker, who appeared to be in his 20s, told Ms. Desmond and the FDA official that he purchased the chimp from hunters. In Liberia, as in other African countries with a wild chimpanzee population, poachers kill adult chimps for bushmeat and sell their babies as exotic pets.
Jenny Desmond of Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue & Protection comforts Ella, a baby chimp who is clinging on to the exotic pet trafficker who was attempting to sell her.
Before the Desmonds created a chimpanzee sanctuary, Liberian officials turned a blind eye to the sale of baby chimps because they didn’t have a place to bring them following a confiscation. The lack of enforcement has, until now, enabled the exotic pet trade to flourish. While the Desmonds continue to receive confiscated chimps, they anticipate that the numbers will dwindle over time as poachers and traffickers come to the realization that authorities are confiscating animals and prosecuting the crimes.
Two of the approximately 20 chimps rescued by Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue & Protection after being held captive
Since arriving in Liberia in 2015, the Desmonds have rescued over 20 chimps, all of whom are being housed in a makeshift sanctuary. In December, 2017, they leased a 100 acre tract of forested land on the local river where they plan to build a proper sanctuary from the ground up. The sanctuary, LCRP, will have enclosed areas in the forest so that the chimps can live in a semi-wild environment by day; night time housing for the younger chimps; a clinic; a commissary for food preparation; isolation areas for new arrivals to prevent the spread of illnesses; housing for caregivers and volunteers; public areas for education and conservation programs; and administrative offices.
After being confiscated by wildlife authorities, Ella, a victim of the exotic pet trade whose mother was killed by poachers, finds peace and happiness at Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue & Protection (LCRP)
By the time orphaned chimps arrive at Liberia Chimp Rescue & Protection’s (LCRP) new sanctuary, they have experienced more tragedy than most humans will experience in a lifetime. That’s because they watched poachers kill their mothers for bushmeat before kidnapping them and hauling them out of their forest home in an attempt to sell them as exotic pets.
“Most of the orphans are inconsolable when they arrive,” Jenny Desmond, who, along with her husband Jim, created LCRP. “You can see the heartbreak in their eyes.”
When orphaned chimps arrive at Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue & Protection, caregivers work to help them recover from the trauma of losing their families; being kidnapped from the forest and being held captive by poachers. (photo: Jenny Desmond)
When government authorities deliver baby chimps to LCRP after confiscating them from poachers, Jenny and Jim swing into action right away, assigning a human caregiver to be the baby’s surrogate mother. With the support and guidance from the Desmonds, who have spent their careers working at sanctuaries, the caregivers spend the next days, weeks and months helping the chimps recover by bottle feeding them, playing with them, introducing them to other orphans, sleeping next to them and ultimately integrating them into a chimp group. In time, most of the chimps recover from their trauma and find happiness at the sanctuary.
“These babies should be in the forest, but, because poachers killed their mothers and families, they have to be raised by humans,” said Jenny Desmond. “We are their surrogate mothers – day and night. At about age five, wild chimpanzees start sleeping separately from their mothers, so we use this, along with their needs and personalities, to determine when they’re ready to fully integrate into our older nursery group and spend their days and nights with other chimps.”
Jenny Desmond, co-founder of Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue & Protection, plays with an orphaned chimp
The Desmonds hope that they can one day return some of these chimps to their natural habitat in the Liberian forests, which have an estimated 7,000 wild chimps remaining. Re-introduction, however, is a complicated, long-term process. In the meantime, they are creating as natural a life as possible for the chimps in a sanctuary setting.
Jim Desmond, co-founder of LCRP and caregiver Annie, act as surrogate parents for the orphaned chimps.
The Desmonds arrived in Liberia in 2015 to take care of another population of chimps — the 66 who were abandoned on deserted islands by the New York Blood Center. Within weeks of their arrival, however, the FDA (Forestry Development Authority) knocked on their front door and dropped off two infants. In just over a year, that number has grown to 16. The Desmonds have outgrown their space and plan to move to a more remote location in the forest where the babies can, along with their human caregivers and other chimps, can live in a semi-wild environment with minimal human contact.
As babies become adolescents, they are integrated into chimp groups and spend less time interacting with humans.
“Chimps are wild animals, not pets,” said Desmond. “Ideally, the only people who should be interacting with them are their surrogate mothers who provide them with the parenting and TLC that they need to survive during their first several years of life.”
The Desmonds are working with government authorities and other NGOs to protect chimpanzees, a critically endangered species, in their forest home. Combatting Liberia’s illegal bushmeat and exotic pet trades means far fewer baby chimps will be orphaned and need sanctuary. They hope that ecotourism – trekking to see habituated chimps in the forest – can eventually be a source of income for those who are now poaching chimps and selling their meat. “Chimps are a valuable renewable resource for Liberians, as mountain gorillas are for Rwandans, but that means protecting them instead of killing them,” said Desmond.
Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue & Protection (LCRP)
Between protecting wild chimps in the forest and raising orphaned chimps at the sanctuary, the Desmonds have a lot of work to do – in a difficult setting. Thankfully, they have a team of dedicated caregivers at LCRP who genuinely love the chimps and their jobs.