These Chimps Helped Save Human Lives: Now We've Left them to Die
May 29, 2015 11:19 AM   Subscribe

In 1975, the New York Blood Center (NYBC) decided to bring 100 chimpanzees to Liberia to conduct research on hepatitis and other human diseases. The research worked: we now have a vaccine for hepatitis B, and the research project ended in 2005. But NYBC left the chimps in Liberia, promising that they could retire there and be cared for until the natural end of their lives. In March 2015, NYBC abruptly ended funding for the chimp sanctuary. The chimps are slowly starving to death, dependent on the charity of unpaid caregivers for food and fresh water. NYBC says they have no legal or moral obligation to help.

In 1975, the New York Blood Center (NYBC) contracted with the Liberian Institute of Biomedical Research and a biomedical research company called Vilab to conduct tests on more than 100 chimpanzees to try to find a vaccine for hepatitis and to engage in research to improve human health. The research worked: it led not only to a hepatitis B vaccine, but also a sterilization method that is now used around the world to protect blood transfusion patients.

The NYBC promised researchers and the Liberian government that when the research study was ended in 2005, the chimpanzees could stay in the research center, which would be maintained as a chimp sanctuary. The NYBC began at that time to try to make arrangements for qualified long-term care for the chimps, which would cost about $30,000 a month for the rest of their lives. The director of Vilab in 2005 told the American Society of Primatologists that NYBC "recognizes its responsibility to provide an endowment to fund the Sanctuary for the lifetime care of the chimpanzees." But NYBC says that it has no such responsibility.

Chimpanzees, along with bonobos, are the species currently living that bears the closest genetic relation to human beings. In addition to the physical resemblance (opposable thumbs, the ability to walk upright, relative brain size), chimps share many behavioral characteristics with humans. They live in families and communities; make and use tools; laugh when tickled or when something funny happens (they even laugh in response to a playmate laughing, even if they find the situation less funny); use language (including sign language to communicate with humans); enjoy solving puzzles; and grieve over the deaths of loved ones. Chimps are endangered species, and there are believed to be fewer than 300,000 of them left in the world.

In 1975, when the NYBC studies began, much less attention was paid to the interests of complex primates such as chimps. In the latter half of the twentieth century, scientists conducted hundreds of studies on chimps, including removing or destroying parts of their brains; attempting to transplant their organs into humans; exposing them to large doses of painful radiation; castrating them without anesthesia; crashing them in planes and spaceships to study impact injuries; exposing them to carcinogens; isolating baby chimps for years on end without any contact with other sentient beings; and infecting them with typhoid, ebola, and malaria. The chimps now abandoned in Liberia were part of such an infectious disease study: they were intentionally infected with hepatitis because researchers wanted to study how their immune systems, which are similar to but stronger than the human immune system, fought the virus.

Today, many in the scientific and legal communities are deeply uncomfortable with such research, with some even advocating that chimps be granted the legal right to be free from unnecessary confinement and pain for the benefit of humans. But even those who oppose the recognition of "human" rights for chimps have come to adopt substantially more stringent standards for the ethical care of research chimps, citing the growing understanding of their complex culture, mental capacities, and physical needs.

On the Liberian mangrove islands where the NYBC chimps live, there is no clean water. There is no natural food source. And because chimps are not strong swimmers, there is no way to escape. The chimps have been domesticated and have none of the survival skills that would allow them to be released into the wild. The 66 chimps require daily feeding and water provision in order to maintain their health. Now, a team of Liberian volunteers is providing limited amounts of food and fresh water every other day. The chimps' caregivers report that they look thin, and some of the younger chimps appear lethargic.

The NYBC says that the chimpanzees are the responsibility of the Liberian government. 85 percent of humans in Liberia live below the poverty line, and Liberia has been free from the deadly ebola virus for less than a month. Chimpanzees are not native to the Liberian islands, and they live there only because U.S. researchers placed them there. A spokesperson for NYBC told Vice Magazine, "NYBC had been supporting the sanctuary on a voluntary basis (although NYBC had no obligation to do so) until such time as the Government of Liberia could take over . . . NYBC repeatedly let the Government of Liberia know that they couldn't provide this support indefinitely, but the Liberian government never instituted a transition plan." NYBC continues to state that the Liberian government has promised to care for the chimps; caregivers on the ground state that no assistance has been provided, and that the chimps have been surviving on small donations for months. The New York Blood Center reported $1.5 million in revenue after expenses in 2013.
posted by decathecting (41 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
What's the best action we can take to help, besides publicizing this?
posted by agregoli at 11:26 AM on May 29, 2015 [7 favorites]


Sometimes I really don't need more confirmation that essentially human beings are terrible to everyone--chimp, animal, or their fellow humans.
posted by Kitteh at 11:30 AM on May 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


[Comment nixed; all good intentions aside, a fundraising link in a comment immediately after the post isn't substantially all that different from a link in the post itself and it'd be better to not make that explicitly part of the presentation here.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 11:33 AM on May 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


Sorry, cortex. I actually had no intention of putting the fundraising link up at all. I posted it only because agregoli asked explicitly. But I respect your decision.
posted by decathecting at 11:35 AM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is so heartbreaking. Situations like this are so hard, because there's no perfect answers. I mean, yes, there are chimpanzees stuck on an island, and they're all starving to death. That is horrible. But if you gave me $150k (the number from the recently deleted fundraiser link), and told me to go reduce suffering in Liberia, I don't think I'd spend it on the chimpanzees. There's so many people that need help in Liberia.

85 percent of humans in Liberia live below the poverty line, and Liberia has been free from the deadly ebola virus for less than a month. Chimpanzees are not native to the Liberian islands, and they live there only because U.S. researchers placed them there.

Well, I mean, a large chunk of the people are only in Liberia because the U.S. took them from their homes and placed them there.

I'm not trying to argue against helping those who need help, it's just that everyone needs help here. I think I gotta get off the internet for the day.
posted by DGStieber at 11:38 AM on May 29, 2015 [8 favorites]


The federal government has a longstanding commitment to pay for retirement for chimps that are too old for research. There are hundreds that are kept on sanctuaries on Air Force bases (which sounds like the setup for a terrible B-movie). There's a new sanctuary called Chimp Haven, capable of holding more than 1,000 chimps, that was built by an act of Congress to consolidate all these programs. I find this a little bizarre but also awesome.
posted by miyabo at 11:38 AM on May 29, 2015 [6 favorites]


Do they have a legal obligation? I think the ethical obligation is clear, but I wonder if they are actually legally ok, and I assume probably.

I mean, yes, there are chimpanzees stuck on an island, and they're all starving to death. That is horrible. But if you gave me $150k (the number from the recently deleted fundraiser link), and told me to go reduce suffering in Liberia, I don't think I'd spend it on the chimpanzees.

That's cool and you should feel great about continuing to donate to things you feel are important, but other people have different priorities.
posted by jeather at 11:40 AM on May 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


The FB page for the New York Blood Center is getting links posted about this fiasco, so that's good, at least.

Well, I mean, a large chunk of the people are only in Liberia because the U.S. took them from their homes and placed them there.

Liberia was a private initiative. It was a dumb nineteenth-century idea (problem: we have slaves from Africa, solution: send those people back to Africa!), but it was voluntarily undertaken.
posted by Countess Elena at 11:41 AM on May 29, 2015 [5 favorites]


At the very least couldn't the NYBC just humanely put them to sleep and be done with it that way? Why is starving to death always seen as better than being put to sleep?
posted by bleep at 11:42 AM on May 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


Bleep - its cheaper. Sadly.
posted by agregoli at 11:44 AM on May 29, 2015


The federal government has a longstanding commitment to pay for retirement for chimps that are too old for research. There are hundreds that are kept on sanctuaries on Air Force bases (which sounds like the setup for a terrible B-movie).

Yeah, the screenplay practically writes itself...

There's a new sanctuary called Chimp Haven

And there's my title!

Seriously, though, what a depressingly tragic story. Yes, there are plenty of people in Liberia that need help too, but we humans have a mind-boggling abundance of resources and $150K is a drop in the Federal budget bucket. I'd be willing to endure the inevitable distortions of "ridiculous government spending" propaganda to have the US step in and take care of this obligation.
posted by Gelatin at 11:51 AM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yeah but before they cut funding, NYBC said ok we're providing $x and that's it. Instead of basically throwing away $x they could have said "We're going to spend $x to put them to sleep." It's sad and it sucks but it's generally seen as acceptable to put suffering animals to sleep if we can't alleviate their suffering.
posted by bleep at 11:53 AM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


The NYBC haven't changed course or issued a press release.

They're done as a charity. A nonprofit doesn't recover from something as unbelievably shitty as this.

I mean... if they made a plea for money, not promised to care for the chimps, gave some advance warning before leaving the animals to starve.... There are just too many WTFs here to contend with.
posted by schmod at 11:53 AM on May 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


Maybe they hoped someone would swoop in and save them. Not saying its not shitty but guessing why they didn't put the animals down.
posted by agregoli at 11:54 AM on May 29, 2015


I'm guessing anything other than "Stop sending money to Liberia" didn't occur to them.
posted by bleep at 11:57 AM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Chimp Haven has a website, if you're interested in what they're doing there.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:02 PM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think they balanced out the 100% certainty of atrocious publicity "NYBC kills perfectly healthy chimps who saved us from hepatitis" to the possibility that "NYBC stops supporting chimps in Liberia" would pass under the radar and bet that way. (Which is possibly good, because it seems likely that the gofundme will get somewhere.)
posted by jeather at 12:02 PM on May 29, 2015


The message is:

Don't EVER take part in drug research.

The companies couldn't care a damn about curing diseases as long as they can make money.
posted by Burn_IT at 12:16 PM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is cruel and awful. (There is a link to the fundraiser in the NYTimes article linked in the 3rd paragraph of the post.) To the extent that non-profits rely on their reputation, maybe spreading on social media (including NY Blood Center's own social media) will help shame them into doing the right thing.
posted by Mavri at 12:16 PM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


I can't afford to donate, so I will share this as much as I can. Wish I could do more.
posted by agregoli at 12:25 PM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yeah I think NYBC didn't want to be on the hook for killing the chimps. (And really, can we cut it out with the kindergartenesque "put them to sleep" garbage? It's killing. Call it "euthanasia" if you need a euphemism to sleep better at night, but really, it's killing. Own it if that's what you're advocating.) I bet they figured that by pushing it over on the Liberian government, that then the government would send somebody over there with a rifle and that would be the end of the story. They'd have clean hands and could just blame Liberia if anyone ever came asking about it down the road.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:31 PM on May 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


If you live in NYC and want to donate blood/platelets somewhere other than the NYBC (which runs many of the blood drives in the city), look into donating directly to one of the local hospitals.
posted by melissasaurus at 12:33 PM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


And really, can we cut it out with the kindergartenesque "put them to sleep" garbage? It's killing. Call it "euthanasia" if you need a euphemism to sleep better at night, but really, it's killing. Own it if that's what you're advocating.

Are you saying my childhood cat didn't actually go away to live on a farm where he was going to be much happier living there, than in the city, and he wasn't actually going to play with lots of other cats?
posted by theorique at 12:35 PM on May 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


The chimps could be an effective marketing tool.

Give blood today or else Bonzo will rip off your face.
posted by dr_dank at 12:37 PM on May 29, 2015


The cost just isn't making sense to me. Why would it take anything like $30,000 per month to feed and water 66 chimps??
posted by mysterious_stranger at 12:49 PM on May 29, 2015


The cost just isn't making sense to me. Why would it take anything like $30,000 per month to feed and water 66 chimps??

In addition to the cost of the food and water (and getting it there), you have to pay people to do it.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 12:57 PM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Do you want to feed 66 animals every day, on uninhabited islands off the coast of Africa, each of which could easily kill you if it gets the slightest bit mad, and which are carrying extremely virulent blood-borne diseases?
posted by miyabo at 1:10 PM on May 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


No.
posted by Meatbomb at 1:13 PM on May 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


YES.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:24 PM on May 29, 2015 [6 favorites]


Maybe?
posted by item at 2:26 PM on May 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


Seriously, though, this is such an incredibly fucked up situation and it completely breaks my heart. We owe these beings so much more than a fate such as this.
posted by item at 2:31 PM on May 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


No.
posted by Meatbomb


Really? If the Metafilter Yearbook had a category for "Most likely to feed 66 animals every day, on uninhabited islands off the coast of Africa, each of which could easily kill you if it gets the slightest bit mad, and which are carrying extremely virulent blood-borne diseases" I would have voted Meatbomb.

While I understand DGStieber's point about the human suffering in Liberia, this is still a disgrace. NYBC obviously has an ethical obligation to these chimpanzees.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 2:37 PM on May 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


Its still ethical to torture and experiment on rats though, right?

They don't look anything like us, aren't aren't very related.

I have pet rats.
posted by el io at 2:46 PM on May 29, 2015


And really, can we cut it out with the kindergartenesque "put them to sleep" garbage? It's killing. Call it "euthanasia" if you need a euphemism to sleep better at night, but really, it's killing. Own it if that's what you're advocating.

Can we cut it out with the Bill O'Reilly-esque "I call it like I see it, tough talk" garbage? Everyone knows "euthanasia" and "putting to sleep" mean the same thing, and they mean something a bit more nuanced than "killing," which is why we have lots of words that suggest "killing" like "murder" and "massacring" that carry heavier connotations, as opposed to the "less painful, easier death" implied by euthanasia? No heavy truths are being dropped here, nothing is being "disowned" or swept under the rug. When someone tells me a relative "passed away from natural causes," I don't tell them that "they ate poorly and killed themselves slowly, own it!"
posted by aydeejones at 4:20 PM on May 29, 2015 [25 favorites]


This is why the push to grant non-human personhood to species like chimpanzees is so important.
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 5:15 PM on May 29, 2015 [9 favorites]


Here's the (unrated) page on the NYBC at Charity Navigator.

Looking at the 2013 990 filing, they had revenue of $329,290,000. They paid a little more than 1.1% to their top executives, with a total executive payout of: $3,746,944. They earned royalties of $5,164,000, some of which we can assume are for their patents on hepatitis A &B vaccines.

They get the vast majority of their funding from the U.S. Government, from women who are are feared into paying for cord bank services when they give birth, and from blood donors who donate a product that the NYBC then sells.

This is some evil, immoral, unacceptable behavior on the part of the NYBC, and if there was any fairness in the U.S. Justice system, every single dollar that has been made on the backs of the research done on chimps should be returned to them to pay for their retirement in a safer place than an island in Liberia.

What horrible, horrible people that could do this to those creatures. Horrible, terrible, no good, very bad people.
posted by dejah420 at 5:33 PM on May 29, 2015 [9 favorites]


Everyone knows "euthanasia" and "putting to sleep" mean the same thing...

Well, sort of, yes... But to my mind, they mean killing a person or animal that is deathly sick or whose quality of life will be such that death is the preferred option.

Are you engaging in euthanasia when you kill a dog that is otherwise healthy, but you don't want to feed it? I'd go with you're killing the dog, you aren't doing the humane thing, you're doing the immoral thing.

Word have meanings and connotations, and using a word that describes the ethical humane thing seems inappropriate for this situation.
posted by el io at 5:35 PM on May 29, 2015




From Dr. Goodall's's letter:
"Chimpanzees are an incredibly intelligent and social species which is critically endangered across their entire range in Africa. They live in large multi-male, multi-female intergenerational groups that have complex social structures. Only 100 years ago, we estimate that there were more than one million individuals across 24 countries in Africa. Today there may be as few as 150,000 to 200,000 individuals and they have completely disappeared from three countries. Research on chimpanzees that were taken from the wild (which always entails killing the mother) has contributed to the decline in their numbers.
We understand that among the coalition of organizations working to address this issue, some, like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), have committed emergency funding to address the immediate needs of these chimpanzees, but this cannot and should not be relied upon forever. Your company was responsible for acquiring these chimpanzees, some we understand even from the wild, and thus has a moral obligation to continue to care for them for the remainder of their lives."
posted by item at 5:53 PM on May 29, 2015 [11 favorites]


dejah420: thanks for posting that – I was just wondering how plausible any claim of poverty might be. Sadly, the cynical suspicion that it'd be a drop in the executive budget turned out to be correct, as usual.
posted by adamsc at 4:54 AM on May 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


It really makes me mad that they're blaming the Liberian government. It wasn't the Liberian government that decided to start all this research, it was NYBC. The Liberian government just gave them permission to use an old research facility. And now they're blaming the Liberian government for not instituting a transition plan. If they really wanted to transition their work to the Liberian government they should have discussed this with them before starting the research program and not when they were almost ready to close it down.
posted by Lingasol at 10:54 AM on May 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


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