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HSUS’s Chimpanzee Debacle

April 6, 2021 by Leave a Comment


The News

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.

Precious, a chimpanzee at Project Chimps

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.

Project Chimps, an HSUS sanctuary, sued former employees Crystal Alba and Linsday Vanderhoogt after they came forward publicly with evidence of animal cruelty

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.

National Geographic published an in-depth story that corroborated their allegations.

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.

HSUS claims that the 77 residents of Project Chimps have daily access to the outdoors, but advocates believe this is misleading because the “porches” are enclosed concrete rooms

The Nonhuman Rights Project issued a public statement demanding that Project Chimps provide its clients, Hercules and Leo, with daily access to the 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.

The Nonhuman Rights Project is asking its supporters to call on HSUS CEO Kitty Block to give the chimpanzees the choice to spend their days in the forested habitat

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.

The Nonhuman Rights Project is calling on The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) to provide its clients, Hercules and Leo, with daily access to an outdoor yard.

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.

The 77 chimpanzees at Project Chimps have access to an outdoor habitat for approximately 10 hours per week. They spend the remainder of their days in concrete porches that HSUS and Project Chimps describe as “outdoors”

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?

Progress For Science, a Los Angeles-based animal rights group,  protests at the Santa Monica home The Humane Society of the United States board member Steven White over the mistreatment of animals at its Project Chimps sanctuary

In order for HSUS to uphold the mission of Project Chimps “to provide lifelong exemplary care” to the chimpanzees in its care, it must do the following:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Hire a veterinarian and vet tech who have chimpanzee expertise.
  5. 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.

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Animal Rights Activists Protest Humane Society Board Member Sharon Lee Patrick over Animal Cruelty at Project Chimps

October 23, 2020 by Leave a Comment


The News

Over 30 animal rights activists staged a protest at the New York City home of Sharon Lee Patrick, a member of the Board of Directors of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), over the organization’s refusal to improve the living conditions of the 78 chimpanzees in their care at Project Chimps, HSUS’s sanctuary in Georgia.  At Project Chimps, the animals are held in concrete rooms for all but 10 hours a week.

“Project Chimps is supposed to be a sanctuary, not a warehouse,” said Edita Birnkrant, the Executive Director of the animal rights group NYCLASS and co-organizer of the protest. “The Humane Society needs to build additional outdoor habitats so that the chimps are moving around freely in the fresh air instead of pulling out their hair in concrete prison cells.”

In May, 2020, 22 former Project Chimps employees and volunteers sent a letter to Project Chimps board director Bruce Wagman to voice their concerns about poor veterinary care, infrequent access to the outdoors, overcrowding, rushed chimpanzee introductions, a lack of sufficient enrichment and other forms of neglect and deprivation. Project Chimps dismissed their concerns in a three sentence response and described two of the former employees as “disgruntled” in a lawsuit that it filed against them after they posted evidence of the abuse on HelpTheChimps.org.

Left: Eddie, who was injured during a fight due to overcrowding (photo taken in Sept., 2019). Right: Panielle, who is underweight in this photo due to neglected intestinal parasites (Photo taken in late 2019).

The protest comes less than a week after the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) issued a public statement demanding that HSUS and Project Chimps provide the chimpanzees with daily access to the outdoors. 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.

The Nonhuman Rights Project issued a public statement demanding that Project Chimps provide its clients, Hercules and Leo, with daily access to the outdoors. Full statement.

After being liberated from a lab in New York, Hercules and Leo were relocated to HSUS’s Project Chimps, which describes itself as a sanctuary

NhRP is not the first animal rights organization to publicly criticize HSUS over the mistreatment of animals at Project Chimps. On July 31st, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals issued its own statement after reviewing the evidence.

On July 31, 2020, PETA issued a public statement regarding the welfare conditions at Project Chimps

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.

National Geographic investigative story about animal mistreatment at HSUS’s chimpanzee sanctuary, Project Chimps

Sharon Lee Patrick is the fourth HSUS board member targeted with protests. Since July, 2020, animal rights activists have protested at the Santa Monica (CA) home of Steven White; at the Sag Harbor (NY) clothing store owned by Brad Jakeman; and the San Francisco home of Susan Atherton, the co-chair of the board.

During a protest at the NYC home of HSUS board member Sharon Lee Patrick, activists distributed hundreds of flyers to her neighbors

Grass roots animal rights groups around the country, including Stop Animal Exploitation Now and Progress for Science, say they will continue to hold HSUS board members accountable until they acknowledge the welfare violations at Project Chimps and commit to addressing them. They are posting updates on the campaign and calls to action on the Facebook pages Do The Right Thing and Protesting HSUS Over Cruelty at Project Chimps

TheirTurn is documenting the grass roots campaign to hold HSUS board members accountable for mistreating the chimpanzees in their care at Project Chimps


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Unlocking The Cage Premieres in New York City

June 7, 2016 by Leave a Comment


The News

Unlocking the Cage, a highly-anticipated new film that documents the historic battle by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) to win legal rights for nonhuman animals, premiered in New York City on May 25th.

The film’s directors, D A Pennebaker and Chris Hedegus, who, according to the New York Times, have made the “most memorable documentaries of the past half-century,” followed their subject, Steven Wise, for four years to record his effort to achieve personhood for several chimpanzees in New York being held captive in laboratories and roadside zoos.

“We are grateful to Pennebaker and Hegedus not only for making such an excellent film about the groundbreaking legal work of Steven Wise and the NhRP but also because their involvement will expand the reach of the film to mainstream audiences worldwide,” said Kevin Schneider, Executive Director of the Nonhuman Rights Project.

From left to right: NhRP President Steven Wise and Unlocking The Cage filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus

From left to right: NhRP President Steven Wise and Unlocking The Cage filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (photo: Lukas Maverick Greyson)

On the day before the worldwide premiere at the Film Forum in Greenwich Village, the New York Times gave the film a favorable review:

“It is hard to watch Unlocking the Cage without being somewhat swayed by the arguments — or at least impressed by the sincerity — of Steven Wise, a leading animal-rights lawyer. . . Mr. Wise has argued that animals should have the legal status of persons. What this means is not that they should be classified as human, but rather that their rights should be acknowledged and protected under the law.”

The review contains a strong pro-animal rights message: “It is also possible that practices and attitudes now widely taken as natural will look arbitrary and cruel to future generations, and that the future will arrive sooner than many of us expect. It wouldn’t be the first time.”

Unlocking The Cage premiered in NYC on June 25th.

Unlocking The Cage premiered in NYC on May 25th.

Your Turn

To stay apprised of developments with Unlocking the Cage, please follow the film’s Facebook page.

To learn more about the groundbreaking work of the Nonhuman Rights Project, please visit the organization’s website.


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Nonhuman Rights Project Files Lawsuit to Free Imprisoned Chimp

April 23, 2014 by Leave a Comment


The News

The NY Times reports that animal law professor Steven Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project (Nh.R.P) have filed a lawsuit on behalf of a captive chimpanzee named Tommy, who is “the first nonhuman primate to ever sue a human captor in an attempt to gain his own freedom.” The Nh.R.P. plans to file similar lawsuits on behalf other great apes, dolphins, orcas, belugas, elephants and African gray parrots, all of whom have sophisticated cognitive abilities.

Chimps were chosen first because sanctuaries are prepared to take them if they win their freedom in court and because of the availability of research on their cognitive abilities: Advanced neurological and genetic research has shown that animals like chimpanzees, orcas and elephants possess self-awareness, self-determination and a sense of both the past and future. They have their own distinct languages, complex social interactions and tool use. They grieve and empathize and pass knowledge from one generation to the next. The very same attributes, in other words, that we once believed distinguished us from other animals.”

News & Opinion

Imprisoning animals in zoos, labs, aquariums or any other captive setting is cruel. Imagine the frustration, stress, anxiety and depression experienced by orcas at Sea World; circus elephants on trains; and chimps in small cages in university basements! Please learn about and support the ground-breaking legal work of the Nonhuman Rights Project to free animals from captivity.


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