Providing medical care to chimpanzees is always a challenge, but it can be particularly difficult when they have been subject to decades of invasive medical research procedures against their will.
Years ago, we participated in a study that considered whether chimpanzees might exhibit abnormal behaviors that cluster into syndromes similar to posttraumatic stress disorder and depression in humans (you can read it here). Negra was featured in the paper as a case vignette:
A chimpanzee named Negra was a 36-year-old female at the time of the study. Taken from the wild in Africa as an infant, she has remained in captivity since that time. She was used in invasive research, including hepatitis experiments, and for breeding. Each of her infants was removed from her at an early age. During the period in which she was used in research, she was kept in isolation for several years. Approximately 1 year prior to the study, she was transferred to Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest in Washington state, where she currently lives with six other chimpanzees.
Negra met alternative criteria for depression and PTSD. According to reports, she had persistent depressed hunched posture, and she was socially withdrawn. Negra slept excessively during the daytime, and she lacked interest in play, food, other individuals, and grooming. She also demonstrated poor attention to tasks. She was described as slow and sluggish, and at times, she appeared anxious. In response to an unexpected touch, she would â€œthreat bark,â€ scream, or run away. Compared with other chimpanzees, she demonstrated less variability in her facial expressions. Caretakers reported that her face was expressionless, â€œlike a ghost,â€ for at least a month after she arrived at the sanctuary. She seldom, if ever, exhibited a play face. She was tested for a thyroid disorder and assessed for other medical causes of her clinical presentation, but all laboratory tests were within normal limits. Based on later reports provided by her caretakers, some of her symptoms have improved since she has been living in the sanctuary. She has become more interested in other chimpanzees, including grooming, and the variability in her facial expressions has increased.
Negra’s anxious response to being touched was not just a sad reminder of her earlier trauma; it was a serious impediment to her care at the sanctuary. Chimpanzees routinely receive wounds from fights, they develop dental problems, they get heart disease and diabetes and many other illnesses, and these things often require medical intervention.
There’s always a way to force medical care on an uncooperative chimpanzee, and sadly that is what’s required from time to time. But that can be stressful and even dangerous. They deserve a chance to participate willingly. Giving them that choice, however, requires a lot of time and energy on the part of their caregivers.
For years, CSNW caregivers (first Debbie and now Anna) have been working with Negra to habituate her to basic medical evaluations and treatments as part of our positive reinforcement training program. These efforts have paid off many times over, most recently when Negra received a wound to her back during a fight. Negra let Anna spray the injury with antiseptic solution and she allowed Dr. Erin to follow that up with laser therapy. In cases where antibiotics may be needed, Negra will even let her caregivers swab the wound to culture the infection and determine the best course of treatment.
For some chimpanzees, this kind of cooperation is no big deal. But chimpanzees are individuals – they have unique life experiences and they cope with those experiences in different ways. Negra has never given her trust lightly. It had to be earned through years of persistent efforts on the part of her caregivers.
It has certainly been worth it.
Lorraine Gordon says
God bless Negra
Thank you J.B. for this touching post on dear Negra. Negra’s life story weighs heavy in my heart. I cannot begin to express how proud I am, how much admiration I hold, for this dear courageous girl. Negra has overcome so much in her lifetime — she is a survivor, like all the chimps. This is why seeing her out on Young’s Hill each spring, enjoying her sweet springtime grass brings tears to my eyes. Seeing her sitting with her back to those tending to her in the second to last photo really got to me too. To earn the trust of someone like Negra is an inexplicable gift. Once earned, you have achieved a life well lived, one with a pure purpose.
Thank you Anna (and Debbie!!) for offering your true self to Negra so she can live a better life. One with trust, love, and friendship. A life where she no longer has fear, anxiety, and pain.
Everything you do at CSNW is so ‘worth it’.
Thank you, Kathleen, for posting your comment. You articulated everything that I would have written. I sob (once again) as I read of the brutality inflicted upon Negra.
I hope that the sadists who tortured Negra (and the other six chimpanzees) stumble upon this website and see photographs and videos of the Cle Elum Seven being allowed to live, and in doing so, defying their previous subjugation as scientific “subjects”. Moreover, I hope that these criminals read the blogs and the comment sections and become deeply ashamed of their crimes against our next of kin, realizing that, at last, the staff, volunteers and supporters of the sanctuary love and rejoice in the lives of their former test subjects.
Carla René says
I hope you’ll forgive me for saying so, but I don’t think it’s as black/white as merely classifying the scientists as criminals and then hoping their karma eventually finds them. You must remember that these scientists involved themselves in the practices of biomedical testing during a time when we were virtually ignorant of just how closely-related chimpanzees are to humans. Dr. Goodall’s research from Gombe was filtering out of there and into the hands of animal behaviourists, anthropologists, and primatologists very slowly, and we all know the incredible lag between enlightenment and the law: it takes the law many years to catch up to new-found discoveries, technologies, and practices.
Point is, yes, we NOW may classify *some* of them as criminals, but at the time, and that is an important qualifier, they BELIEVED to be acting in the best possible interest of human beings. Sure, there were sadists involved, but be careful in painting them all with such a wide, general brush. I’ve read study after study and watched numerous documentaries of scientists who participated in studies and direct testing, and in some cases, it just did not matter if they began to learn differently. They had families to feed like everyone else and jobs to keep. Dissidents who failed to march to the tune of the same percussionist found themselves as outcasts, and I know as a scientists myself just how very small that scientific community is. Just as in entertainment, in science, you’re only as good as your last published paper. Any other whiff of failure means you carry that stench for most of your career.
I realise the intense anger; I’ve even had it myself. The whole time I painted Burrito’s portrait I cried. I bawled huge, UGLY hysterical tears every single day at the thought of what this sweet, gentle doofus had been made to endure.
But I also know there were scientists who didn’t WANT to participate in some of these practices, but, being they all had an eating fetish, well, you can hopefully understand. It would be just as heartless and cruel to want to see THOSE people punished merely for doing what they had no other choice to do, as it would be to hurt these beings who are so closely-related to us. I mean no disrespect. But I’ve learned through hard experience that anger is anger no matter at who it is directed, and that makes it just as dangerous.
Just something to think about. 🙂
What a testament to the love and care the chimps have received since coming to the sanctuary!
Thank you all for your devotion to them.
what a,wonderful story about Negra and the chimps in general…so happy Negra is hsppy now and learned to trust and participate. how tragic their lives must have been…poor babies…just wish I could hug them and tell them its ok now….but its not possible but sending hugs to Negra and the rest of the family….
Bravo to you all ~ I hold you in highest esteem and lovingkindness ~ hugs and love to you all….
Carla René says
I love these types of postings from you, Jeeb. They’re scientifically fascinating, and raise all sorts of questions. The abstract was quite interesting. It was good to see that you were one of the authors on the paper. 🙂
The first photo of Negra broke my heart. Not because she’s in her cage and it’s so small and no sunlight, and blah, blah, blah, but because of the obvious: look at her eyes. There’s a mixture of fear, sheer terror, sadness, and yet a form of hope/pleading. It’s small, but the hope is there. It *must* be, or they wouldn’t keep fighting to remain sane day after day. They would have mentally checked out long before y’all got to them.
We all know Neggie’s penchant for a good nap/long sleep. But does she *still* display other signs of her early PTSD? What are some of those, I mean, if you don’t mind sharing them? I’ve noticed that for the most part, you guys share all the good stuff and minimise these types of sad postings, and I totally understand that and why; you don’t want to alarm your readers or make them worry needlessly.
But if you can share some of this, it just gives us a clearer picture of what you guys go through on our behalf. And I say our, because I know some like me would be doing this in a heartbeat if given the chance.
It’s cute to think of Negra sitting next to her caging, caregiver on the other side, and when given the command, watching her turn her plump little back to them OF HER OWN FREE WILL, probably munching a grape, with absolutely NO distress in her eyes. I know y’all can’t take away her memories; hopefully as with humans, they’ll fade with time and hold no pain in them, but at least you can rest easy knowing you’re not creating further pain in her new ones.
Cheers. <3 <3 <3
Yes, in addition to excessive sleep/inactivity, Negra also continues to show other signs signs such as social withdrawal, lack of interest in new things, short attention span, overreaction, etc. But these symptoms have all become moderated to varying degrees, most notably her reaction to touch. We also see her play more often, participate in grooming more often, venture further outside and remain outdoors for longer periods, and engage with enrichment for longer durations.
Carla René says
That’s truly wonderful, JB, and I thank you for sharing it. I have PTSD from repeated traumas in my own past, so I completely understand what she may be feeling or thinking.
As a primatologist, have you ever seen instances when there was just no way to bring them back to a healthy, functional level?
Do chimpanzees have bad dreams like humans? I don’t think I’ve ever even seen that mentioned in a study.
Thanks again, Jeeb!
Yes, Diana and I cared for a chimpanzee at another sanctuary who probably fit that description. She never really engaged socially with other chimpanzees, though she was able to share an enclosure with one or two other chimps. We point out that Negra is socially withdrawn at times, but this was different. Much more severe. And she would spin for long periods of time, sometimes screaming as she did so. I wouldn’t say she ever had a normal life, despite the great efforts made on her behalf by the amazing staff and volunteers at the sanctuary. She was certainly saved from a far worse fate, but it wasn’t exactly a happy ending.
elaine reininger says
What a moving post. It is good for us to be periodically reminded of their horrible past in order to appreciate how much they have mentally and physically advanced due to your loving care. Was wondering if a PTSD chimp is given medication to help overcome the terrors? Thanks JB for in insight on Negra’s background and for telling us how far she has come. The laser treatment pictures tells it all
Yes, chimps are given medication to treat behavioral disorders and mental illnesses on a case by case basis. SSRIs are common, and I’ve heard of antipsychotics being used but I don’t know the details of those situations. Our philosophy has always been conservative in this regard – if a disorder leads to self-injury or significantly interferes with their daily lives, we would try medication. If not – and especially if there are signs of improvement – we would wait and see. There’s no right or wrong answer.
I wanted to add a quote of J.B.’s from a past post. It was so moving that I think of it often when reading your posts. It especially applies to this post on Negra.
“It’s often said that healing is not a matter of forgetting, but of accumulating new memories that, over time, crowd out the bad ones.” ~ J.B. Mulcahy
I hope all of The Seven have crowded out that dark nightmare of their past. May they only recall all the joy and love you have provided at their sanctuary Home.
JB- Another exceptionally beautiful blog- educational, interesting, sensitive and hopeful. Habituation works but takes time. As you said, individual differences are a huge factor. Thanks again for sharing Negra’s story. God bless you all for dedicating your lives to the well being of captive chimps.