The residents here at the sanctuary came from unnatural backgrounds, we know this. Whether it be biomedical research, entertainment, or raised in their early years as a pet, their lives have been far from what they would have experienced in the wild. Though Negra and Annie, and possibly Jody, were born in the wild, they were taken from their home and families across the ocean by humans. Not a day goes by that we don’t think about this fact and I often find it impossible not to dwell on it.
Over the years, our staff have worked to piece together the life histories of our residents. While there is some that is still unknown to us, we have learned quite a bit. As one of the newest caregivers, I am still working to know all these histories. Sometimes, their names appear in stories, our hearts stop, and we know a little bit more about the chimps we have the honor to work with.
A few weeks ago, there was a book sitting on top of the table in the foyer of the chimp house. It was From Elephants to Mice: Animals who have touched my soul (2010) by Dr. James Mahoney. Dr. Mahoney is a complicated character, to say the least. He was a veterinarian and a research professor at the New York University School of Medicine, where he worked at the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP). He conducted invasive biomedical research, but later in life became vocal about the conflicting emotions he had about this research. He published a few books over his lifetime and while I have not read Saving Molly: A Research Veterinarian’s Choices (1998), I wanted to read his second novel because, as we know, all of the newly integrated group of 9 were born at LEMSIP.
I am not here to pass judgement on Dr. Mahoney, or to stir any pot, but merely to share parts of the story that I found heavy on my heart after finishing his book. I believe knowledge is power and with more knowledge we can better understand and serve the chimps that call CSNW home.
In 1995, LEMSIP closed and was taken over by the Coulston Foundation of Alamogordo, New Mexico. Dr. Mahoney was made acting director during this time and the deal made between the two organizations included the transfer of 100 chimps from LEMSIP to the Coulston Foundation. When Dr. Mahoney and his colleagues received instructions to arrange transport for the babies from New York to New Mexico, Dr. Mahoney called the founder and director of Wildlife Waystation in California to ask if they could take the babies- in less than a week. The plan is laid out in the book, but the summation is that (under the cover of night) two trucks would arrive at LEMSIP. Maintenance crews and technicians would work together to ensure the safety of the cages during transport and load up the 32 juveniles from the nursery to the transport trucks for their cross-country road trip. He discussed the heartache for the laboratory technicians loading up the chimps, and writes:
“For Cynthia, the heartbreak of separation would be felt most strongly for Cy, her namesake, and Terry, the philosopher of the group, both 6 1/2 years old.” (pg. 209)
After a few set backs, the convoy of juvenile chimpanzees made it safely from New York to Wildlife Waystation- all without the knowledge of the Coulston Foundation and in less than a week since they began planning the move. Terry, Cy, and the other juveniles lived at Wildlife Waystation until it closed down. Willy B, Honey B, and Mave came to us in August of 2019. Cy, Terry, Gordo, Rayne, Dora, and Lucky followed and arrived in June of 2021.
The Coulston Foundation is well known for their infamous animal welfare violations, and I could write a novel about how I feel knowing that so many chimps ended up there. In 2006, though, the Coulston Foundation went bankrupt and the chimpanzees that remained were transferred to Save the Chimps, a sanctuary in Florida, over time. The last group was transferred to sanctuary in 2011.
I find myself grateful to know this part of the lives of everyone in Cy’s group, it feels like I have learned something important about some good friends. I find myself grateful that Dr. Mahoney risked it to save the juveniles and that they are able to live the sanctuary life. I find myself angry that they were there to begin with, that they never had the opportunity to live life the way they were meant to in Africa, and enraged that so many of their family members and peers went on to Coulston- but relieved to know that some have found sanctuary at Save the Chimps. It is overwhelming.
Nine of those juveniles that rode across the United States now call CSNW home. They have indoor/outdoor access, enrichment, yummy meals, veterinary care, and so much more. We can never repay them fully, but we can try.
The 16 chimps we care for are so much more than their pasts, but we have to understand what they’ve been through to better be there for them now.
BONUS PHOTO: Annie and Negra, enjoying the cool and rainy morning in their Greenhouse.