Dispute over chimp care highlights challenges of animal sanctuaries

A group of female chimps gather and eat their supplement snacks at Project Chimps in Morganton on Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. Project Chimps provides lifetime care to former research chimpanzees in a sanctuary on 236 acres of forested land in the Blue Ridge Mountains. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
A group of female chimps gather and eat their supplement snacks at Project Chimps in Morganton on Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. Project Chimps provides lifetime care to former research chimpanzees in a sanctuary on 236 acres of forested land in the Blue Ridge Mountains. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect a settlement reached Saturday in the lawsuit between Project Chimps sanctuary and two former employees.

In fall of 2016, the first group of chimpanzees arrived by bus from the heart of Louisiana’s Cajun country to settle in Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Lindsay Vanderhoogt, a founding staff member of Project Chimps Sanctuary in Morganton, was elated. She had long wanted to work at an animal sanctuary, and Project Chimps was a dream job, she said.

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But less than two years later, Vanderhoogt would resign from the organization. A number of concerns had surfaced about the care of chimps. Vanderhoogt and another former employee, Crystal Alba, began posting online about the sanctuary’s alleged mistreatment of the animals. In July, Project Chimps filed a federal lawsuit accusing them of stealing confidential information and embarking on a campaign to smear the organization. The lawsuit was settled on Saturday, said Ali Crumpacker, executive director of Project Chimps, who declined to provide any details on the settlement.

What began as a dispute over concerns about chimp care at a single sanctuary also highlights the challenges of an industry that operates with limited regulation and oversight. Last week, chimps escaped from a facility in Missouri that is engaged in a lawsuit for unfit conditions, and years earlier, an Oregon sanctuary was determined to have downplayed employee concerns about chimp welfare.

Any facility in the U.S. can designate itself an animal sanctuary and may or may not be licensed under the USDA’s Animal Welfare Act, which sets minimum care standards. Accrediting organizations have higher standards but those encompass to a wide range of practices, said experts.

Project Chimps, one of five accredited chimp sanctuaries in the U.S., is currently home to 78 chimps from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette New Iberia Research Center (NIRC). The 236-acre site purchased with almost $2 million in funding from the Humane Society of the United States will eventually be home to more than 200 NIRC chimps retired from research.

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Crumpacker came on board in 2017 after serving as director of the Fund for Animals Wildlife Center, a rehabilitative facility for wild mammals and birds in California. At the time, she was not aware that Vanderhoogt or Alba had any concerns about animal care. “Crystal was a sleeper cell. She never once in her entire time that she worked with me walked into my office and said I have concerns,” Crumpacker said.

Vanderhoogt and Alba would both serve as chimp caregiver aides, but Vanderhoogt left the company in 2018. Alba was ultimately promoted to veterinary assistant and was responsible for maintaining records and coordinating medical care for chimps. She had several concerns about medical equipment and plans for medication, but the tipping point was when the sanctuary put two groups of chimps in the same villa.

Arielle, a chimpanzee at Project Chimps Sanctuary in Morganton, GA, plays in the outdoor area of the 236-acre property. CONTRIBUTED/ PROJECT CHIMPS
Arielle, a chimpanzee at Project Chimps Sanctuary in Morganton, GA, plays in the outdoor area of the 236-acre property. CONTRIBUTED/ PROJECT CHIMPS

Credit: CONTRIBUTED/ PROJECT CHIMPS

Credit: CONTRIBUTED/ PROJECT CHIMPS

“The buildings were unsanitary. They removed the mulch from the floor. The chimps were left on the concrete filled with urine and feces that promoted an increase in intestinal parasites,” Alba said. For eight months, while a new building was completed, the 14 chimps had no access to the outdoors, she said.

She sent a letter outlining multiple concerns to the board of directors under the company’s whistleblower policy. In January, she also sent a 39-page document to PETA. Alba was terminated a few months later after management said she sent footage of an injured chimp to PETA but not to her supervisor.

Project Chimps conducted an internal investigation and implemented some changes — expanding vet care, adding more enrichment for the chimps and reviewing food administration — but they found Alba’s claims to be false or exaggerated.

The USDA, the federal organization charged with animal welfare inspection, determined in January the sanctuary was in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act, but details on a complaint filed against the sanctuary in July were not publicly available, said spokesman R. Andre Bell.

An on-site investigation by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, which accredits Project Chimps, concluded in April and advised the sanctuary to improve documentation, add a behavioral specialist and update climbing structures, but did not withdraw the sanctuary’s accreditation.

At Project Chimps, a chimp sanctuary in Morganton, workers install updates to the climbing structures designed for chimps.
At Project Chimps, a chimp sanctuary in Morganton, workers install updates to the climbing structures designed for chimps.

Credit: Project Chimps

Credit: Project Chimps

Alba felt her concerns about the chimps had been dismissed. On their website, she and Vanderhoogt detailed why chimps needed improved vet care and living conditions and more access to the outdoors. They also felt a change in leadership was necessary to create a sanctuary that was more focused on the chimps.

In July, two Project Chimps board members affiliated with the Humane Society stepped down over concerns about the relationship between the organizations, “specifically about who makes decisions on the sanctuary’s behalf,” said Humane Society spokeswoman Anna West. Only three of eight current board members are now affiliated with the national organization, she said.

The sanctuary has since signed on to serve as a pilot site in late August for a new program designed to address concerns about chimp welfare at sanctuaries. Stephen Ross, director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, is developing a platform that would provide a science-based, objective assessment of programs at chimp sanctuaries specifically related to care issues.

“Welfare by its own nature is a subjective state. I want to focus on inputs rather than outputs. What a sanctuary is doing rather than what a chimp is feeling because that can be difficult to interpret,” Ross said.

The program will offer context on best practices. A grade or score assigned to sanctuaries could help influence organizations to improve, Ross said.

Vanderhoogt agreed it was important for sanctuaries to have independent reviews available to the public. “The primate community is so small, the more we work in collaboration and sharing information, the better,” she said. “Everyone can talk about it, but when it comes to practice, I will be interested to see what it looks like.”

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