Jermaine was having trouble walking. The 30-year-old chimpanzee’s right foot was dripping blood and “extremely swollen,” according to a former employee at Project Chimps, a 236-acre sanctuary for retired lab chimpanzees in northern Georgia.
A high-ranking member of his 14-member group, Jermaine had been injured in a fight with another chimp in January.
If the injury had been addressed right away, says Crystal Alba, a former veterinary assistant at Project Chimps who cared for Jermaine in the days after the incident, it would have been “a very treatable wound.” Instead, days later, the wound leaked foul-smelling pus and appeared infected, she says.
What happened next would make Jermaine’s case an example of what Alba and 20 other current and former employees, interns, and volunteers have alleged is poor quality of care at the sanctuary, which houses 78 chimps that were retired from a research laboratory in Louisiana. Their claims have drawn aggressive denials from Project Chimps, which has filed a defamation lawsuit against Alba and another former employee that accuses them of “embark[ing] on a campaign to smear Project Chimps.” The case is ongoing as the parties discuss a settlement.
The suit also has put a spotlight on what happens to lab animals after their days as research subjects are over, especially now that labs have moved away from using chimpanzees in studies. In 2015, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), the largest biomedical research agency in the world, announced that it no longer would support biomedical research on federally owned chimpanzees, making them “eligible for retirement.” Five sanctuaries in the United States collectively have taken in more than 650 chimps over the past several years. More than 300 chimps remain in labs—some have been deemed too frail to move; others are waiting for space to open up in sanctuaries.
Project Chimps, founded in 2014, is one of the newest and largest sanctuaries, taking in 80 chimps since its opening. But now, claims and counterclaims about the quality of care for the chimps overshadow the sanctuary.
In Jermaine’s case, the sanctuary’s on-call veterinarian, Jim McClearen, prescribed 700 milligrams of Tramadol, an opioid painkiller, each day, Alba says. In cases of extreme pain, the drug’s manufacturer recommends not exceeding 400 milligrams a day (chimp medication dosages are typically comparable to human dosages). A Tramadol overdose could lead to heart problems, seizures, or even death. Alba says she immediately reached out to McClearen for clarification, and she shared with National Geographic a screenshot of a text message she sent him about the dosage.
It turns out that the dosage was in error because of a typo, Alba says. McClearen had emailed another vet with more chimp experience for advice about Jermaine’s care, and when the outside vet recommended Tramadol, the dosage was mistyped.
Alba provided National Geographic with photos of a prescription pill bottle for Tramadol dated January 18 with a dosage of 350 milligrams twice a day under McClearen’s name. Alba maintains that if she hadn’t caught the error, Jermaine would have received an overdose. “My concern is that Jim, an experienced veterinarian, never questioned this obviously high dosage,” Alba says.
McClearen disputes Alba’s version of events. Jermaine ultimately was given a lower dose of Tramadol and sedated to treat the infected wound.
“The outcome was excellent,” says McClearen, who has more than 45 years of experience as a veterinarian, but hadn’t worked with chimpanzees before 2017, when he began visiting the sanctuary about twice a week. He says Jermaine was never in danger during his treatment. “Doctors do not work alone, they work in teams involving staff and consulting veterinarians…. We ultimately decided to start at a lower dose to see how Jermaine would respond.”
Alba and others alleging problems at the sanctuary say they’re sharing their concerns with National Geographic in hope of preventing future suffering or death among chimps at the facility. In examining the complaints, National Geographic visited the sanctuary twice in the past five months and interviewed 21 current and former employees and volunteers; 13 spoke on the record while eight others interviewed asked that their names be withheld, citing fears of retaliation.
Besides alleging inadequate veterinary care, Project Chimps’ critics describe chimps stressed to the point of harming themselves, living in inadequate housing, and suffering from a lack of stimulation and time outside. They also allege that since 2016, when its first chimps arrived, the sanctuary has accepted too many retired lab chimps too quickly, resulting in overcrowding, increased fighting, and stress behaviors among the animals.
Three staff members—including a consulting veterinarian—reported similar concerns to the sanctuary’s board in 2016. One was later fired, and two, including Emily Talkington, the consulting veterinarian, resigned.
Ali Crumpacker, the sanctuary’s executive director, says she “can’t comment on what may have happened in 2016,” since she hadn’t yet joined the organization. Project Chimps board chairman Bruce Wagman insists that “no employee has ever been terminated or even disciplined for reporting concerns to the board or even an outside agency…. Rather than discipline, we listen, consider, and evaluate every concern brought to us.”
Wagman also says the sanctuary has passed various inspections for cleanliness and for the health of its animals. In January, he says, he and an internal team went over lists of complaints made by Alba and other employees, interviewed staff members, consulted outside experts, and “checked off” every concern.
“We spent so many hours to make sure,” Wagman says, “because that’s who we are, you know. I take any allegation seriously.”
He declined to provide a copy of the results of the internal review but says it concluded that the accusations were unfounded. Some complaints came down to a difference of opinion, he says, and some didn’t give a full picture of conditions at the sanctuary. Other criticisms “were completely false,” Wagman says, and some were “the product of [Alba’s] own lack of expertise,” according to the lawsuit.
On May 27, however, the Global Federation for Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS), a body that accredits Project Chimps and other sanctuaries, said in a statement it had made several recommendations. Many of its recommendations related to things that former staff and volunteers have identified as areas of concern. GFAS declined to provide National Geographic with a copy of its most recent inspections, but said in a statement that its recommendations for Project Chimps included bringing in a consulting veterinarian with chimpanzee experience, writing procedures for health assessments and chimp care plans, and installing new platforms and climbing structures for the chimps.
Steve Ross, director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at the Lincoln Park Zoo, in Chicago, says debates over what constitutes proper care for chimps are not unusual.
“The [chimpanzee] sanctuary business is still relatively new,” he says. “There’s always a little bit of disagreement about where the line should be set, what standards should be set, and I think the sanctuary community is still in the midst of figuring that out.”
Wagman and Crumpacker say the self-proclaimed whistleblowers’ allegations have unfairly maligned Project Chimps. On June 1, the organization filed the defamation suit against Alba and former program assistant and caregiver aide, Lindsay Vanderhoogt. The lawsuit accuses them of “stealing confidential information and making malicious, false, and defamatory public allegations about the operations of the sanctuary and the condition of the primates under its care,” Crumpacker said in a statement. In the complaint, Project Chimps officials say they hope to “prevent further irreparable harm” to the sanctuary, calling Alba and Vanderhoogt “disgruntled former employees who have embarked on a campaign to smear Project Chimps.”
“They want their voice heard, and they want us to suffer,” Crumpacker says. She dismisses the raft of criticisms from other former employees as bitterness on the part of workers upset because they were passed over for promotions or written up for violations, and as loyalty to Alba from her “closest friends.”
She says Project Chimps is discussing a settlement with Alba and Vanderhoogt because “our desire is to resolve this so that we can continue to focus our efforts on providing the best care for our chimpanzee residents.”
Conflicts over chimps’ care
According to Project Chimps’ strategic plan, it has an annual operating budget of about $2 million, raised in part from private donors, including celebrity cook Rachael Ray, actress Judy Greer, and tattoo artist Kat Von D. The Humane Society of the United States provides substantial additional support.
The sanctuary’s mission statement says that its goal is to provide “lifelong exemplary care” to chimps. Those who have criticized the sanctuary’s care say it’s not living up to those standards.
Sara Taylor, a caregiver aide who says she resigned in January because she believed the animals weren’t cared for properly, says that chimps in a newly renovated 5,600-square-foot building called Chateau fought often. Jermaine, who injured his foot during the fight in January, is one of 28 chimps in Chateau.
“The boys that are in Chateau B do not get along with any of the girls, and they were always constantly tearing [the skin around their genitals] apart,” Taylor says. “It was just bad.”
Talkington, a veterinarian who was a consultant for Project Chimps, resigned in 2016, citing differences in opinion over chimp care. She says wounds she’s seen in photographs taken by Alba, the former veterinary assistant, “should not be happening if [the animals] were in appropriate social groups.”
Crumpacker counters that fighting among chimps isn’t more frequent in Chateau than in the other four buildings. “We don’t see any difference between this group and the other groups,” she says.
Alba describes the Chateau building itself as problematic, with inadequate drainage, peeling paint, moldy insulation, and rat feces “everywhere.”
Project Chimps care manager Laura Mayo says problems in the building are dealt with as they arise, and that a rodent control plan is in place. “I always equate it to your house, you know—the water heater breaks, and the roof leaks, you’ve got to prioritize,” she says. “Repairs have been needed, and we’ve taken care of them.”
But one worker who asked not to be identified describes Chateau as a “dangerous, dangerous building” because the way the doors are arranged allows chimps to “grab the door” out of employees’ hands. “I’ve always thought that if an escape was going to happen, it was going to be there—if an animal’s going to be seriously injured, it’s going to be there,” the worker says.
In addition to Alba, a former volunteer named Don Reynolds and another former employee who spoke on condition of anonymity also described Chateau as an unsafe building.
“Chimps are incredibly strong,” says Vanderhoogt, the former employee being sued by Project Chimps along with Alba. “If they find a weakness, they will exploit that weakness.” If they get access to other chimps they aren’t familiar with, “they will hurt each other. Or they could potentially kill each other.”
Crumpacker says the sanctuary’s buildings are safe and equipped with double doors so that if a chimp gets through one it will be stopped by the second.
In the four years since chimps began arriving at the sanctuary, no chimp has escaped or killed another chimp. Two have died of other causes: one of acute cardiac arrest, the other of renal failure, according to Project Chimps. It’s unclear whether the deaths or any permanent injuries resulted from problems identified by the sanctuary’s critics. But disagreements and accusations over the chimps’ treatment and living conditions hang over the facility.
Maddie Silva, another former employee who came forward to National Geographic, says she did so “because I wanted to fix it…but I’m also angry. I’m angry that this has been allowed to continue to happen…I feel as though I owe [the chimps] at least this to try and make it better for them.”
On March 31, Project Chimps fired Alba, days after a chimp named Panielle was hurt during a scuffle. Alba says she immediately shared with McClearen, the veterinarian, a video she took after the incident showing the chimp’s broken teeth. But Alba says she was accused of withholding the video from sanctuary officials and fired.
“This was simply an excuse to get rid of the squeaky wheel,” Alba wrote in a Facebook post that day.
Project Chimps claims in its lawsuit that Alba never shared the video with McClearen, her supervisor, or other staff—“a direct violation of the organization’s medical policies and her job description.” In an email, Project Chimps board chairman Wagman denies she was fired for reporting concerns—in fact, he says, she had done so in the past without repercussions. “We did not discipline her, and she was only terminated after she engaged in blatant chimpanzee neglect, in disregard of chimpanzee welfare—ironically exactly what she has accused Project Chimps of doing.”
Before she was fired, Alba says, she had spent more than a year trying to resolve problems internally, starting in December 2018 when she sent a letter to board members. She says she talked to board members but nothing came of her efforts, and the board eventually declared the matters resolved. She says she continued raising concerns throughout 2019, but they were not addressed.
In the lawsuit, Project Chimps’ officials allege that “rather than proactively identify and raise issues concerning conditions or potential injuries, as required by Project Chimps policy, Alba focused on documenting routine injuries that occur in sanctuary settings, falsifying information, and sending it to outside groups in an effort to present Project Chimps in an unduly negative light.” In an email, Wagman acknowledges, however, that Alba “wrote directly to the board in 2018 and 2019.”
Within 30 minutes of her dismissal, Alba began publicizing her criticisms on Facebook. She later created a website where she uploaded videos, photos, and sanctuary records. She says her aim is to pressure Project Chimps into making changes. “I have a year’s worth of meticulous documentation, and this is now my full-time job,” Alba wrote on Facebook on April 1. The documents and her public claims are the basis of the June 1 lawsuit Project Chimps filed against her.
In an email to National Geographic on June 7, Wagman said that some of Alba’s documents were “illegally obtained” from a hack of the Project Chimps Dropbox account. Alba denies hacking the account.
Wagman asserted in his email that “virtually all of our detractors’ claims have been disproven by outside agencies, independent investigations, and reviews by experienced chimpanzee veterinarians who have reviewed and approved of everything that our accusers claim is cruel and unacceptable treatment.”
GFAS, the accrediting body that sets operating and welfare standards for wildlife sanctuaries, declined to share with National Geographic past inspection reports for Project Chimps. But in a statement, GFAS says its recent recommendations, which the sanctuary agreed to implement by August 1, would “serve to further enhance individualized animal care and enrichment protocols; human and animal safety; and facility renovations and maintenance.”
GFAS said it will then conduct a follow-up inspection and that Project Chimps has retained its accreditation “throughout this investigation.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which routinely inspects facilities to enforce the Animal Welfare Act, has checked on Project Chimps five times since the sanctuary opened, noting minor infractions. The most recent USDA inspection, on January 9, reported no problems.
But a former chimp caregiver who resigned from Project Chimps and spoke on condition of anonymity because she fears retaliation says the January USDA inspection took only two hours—not nearly enough time, she believes, for a thorough check of the facility’s acreage and the 79 chimps it had at the time. Crumpacker says the inspection lasted three or four hours, and the inspector saw every chimp, looked over log books in each building, reviewed protocols, and visited the vet clinic, kitchen, enrichment storage room, and hay storage area. Both the inspector, Carla Thomas, and the USDA spokesperson, Andre Bell, declined to comment on the inspection.
In recent years, USDA oversight has been “at a record low,” according to the Humane Society. Animal welfare groups also have criticized the USDA for issuing fewer citations than in previous years under the Animal Welfare Act of 1966, a law that regulates the handling of animals.
Out of the lab
The year after the NIH announced chimpanzees would be retired from research, Project Chimps announced it had agreed to take all 220 retired chimps from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s New Iberia Research Center (NIRC), which still breeds and carries out biomedical research on other primates. NIRC doesn’t provide specific information about the experiments on its chimps, but according to Project Chimps, the animals may have been used for studies on human locomotion, hepatitis testing, and vaccine development.
The first nine retirees arrived at Project Chimps from NIRC in September 2016. The sanctuary hopes to accept the remaining 125 chimps by 2023, and Crumpacker says as many as 10 are expected this fall.
Crumpacker was hired as executive director in August 2017 after seven years as director of the California-based Fund for Animals Wildlife Center, a rehabilitation facility where she spearheaded expansion of the property, including construction of a medical clinic and creation of a volunteer team.
In interviews with National Geographic, Crumpacker and Project Chimps sanctuary founder Sarah Baeckler Davis acknowledged that the sanctuary’s initial 2016 agreement with NIRC to take the lab’s 220 chimps within five years was too ambitious. (The agreement has since been renegotiated.)
By mid-2017, Project Chimps had taken in only 22 chimps, well short of its goal of 60. The facility, which previously housed gorillas, needed structural modifications to accommodate chimps, and those were costly and time consuming, Crumpacker says. Nine more chimps arrived that year, and in 2018, nearly 30—too many too soon, Vanderhoogt asserts. Project Chimps was “pushing [chimps] into groups when they’re not ready,” which can lead to fighting, she says.
Crumpacker bristles at the suggestion that chimps have been brought in too quickly. Everything moves on “chimp time,” she says, meaning timing that’s best for the animals.
Life in a chimp sanctuary
I visited Project Chimps at Crumpacker’s invitation in March and again in June with photographer Greg Kahn. The sanctuary is nestled among tulip poplar, black walnut, and sourwood trees in the mountains of northern Georgia. In June, Crumpacker led us down a gravel path to a concrete barrier surrounding the chimps’ outdoor habitat. The habitat has tire structures for climbing, imitation termite mounds, and playground equipment. Through a window, we saw a 10-year-old chimp named Haylee, who peered back with inquisitive brown eyes. She nibbled on the sill and stared down at our shoes; chimps are fascinated with shoes, Crumpacker says.
Access to the outdoors is another point of contention between Project Chimps’ management and its critics. Former staff members at Project Chimps say the chimps get no more than 10 hours a week in the outdoor habitat area—not enough, according to Zarin Machanda, director of long-term research at Kibale Chimpanzee Project, a chimp research and conservation center in Uganda. Machanda says it would be reasonable for the animals to be able to spend several hours a day outside, given Georgia’s climate.
While GFAS and other organizations don’t specify how much time captive chimps should spend outdoors, they recommend as much as possible. About 100 miles away in Atlanta, the chimps at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, which conducts biomedical experiments on primates at Emory University, have the option to be outside all day, as do the retired lab chimps at Chimp Haven, a sanctuary in Keithville, Louisiana.
Crumpacker declined to estimate how many hours Project Chimps’ animals spend outside each week, saying that depends on weather and other factors, but she says that two groups access the outdoor habitat daily on a rotating basis. All 78 chimps, she adds, “have almost 24-hour access to see the trees, birds, and sky” from an outdoor porch enclosed by wire mesh.
Around midday during my June visit, the chimps moved inside. We watched them through a window as they ate lunch—romaine lettuce, eggplant, celery, and bamboo. Caregivers and volunteers spread the food around the enclosures, hiding some under hay and scattering some on platforms high above the floor to encourage the chimps’ foraging instincts. Loretta, an 11-year-old easily identified by her big, floppy ears, dangled from the mesh, grasping at treats and licking her fingers. A curious 13-year-old named Noel swung over to observe Kahn and me.
They didn’t look bored when I was there. But in the wild, chimps live in the rainforest, the “most diverse habitat on Earth,” Machanda says, adding that their life in captivity should provide as much stimulation as possible.
Taylor and other former staff members say they believe the toys, puzzles, and activities Project Chimps offers are mundane—not varied or challenging enough to keep such intelligent animals happy and mentally engaged. “It was more on a kindergarten level, when it should have been on a high school level,” she says.
The longer captive chimps are kept without appropriate stimulation, the more they’ll show signs of stress and boredom, such as pulling out their hair and pacing back and forth, Machanda says. “It’s very similar to if you put a 10-year-old kid in an enclosure and didn’t give them anything to do. They would go crazy.”
Photos and videos Alba sent National Geographic show chimps plucking their hair and rocking back and forth—behaviors that have been widely documented in studies as indicators of psychological distress.
But these behaviors also are the inevitable result of life in captivity, especially for former research chimps possibly still traumatized from their past experiences, says Project Chimps’ care manager Laura Mayo. “These guys shouldn’t be in captivity, and they also were never meant to be taken from their mothers so young….It doesn’t mean that there’s poor welfare….You can go down that rabbit hole of why, and did they come like that, did they start it here—I just want them to be able to live out their lives.”
Either way, according to GFAS standards, abnormal or self-injurious behavior “may be evidence of compromised well-being” and should be investigated. GFAS and other chimp welfare guidelines do not provide detailed descriptions of what constitutes adequate enrichment.
Health care at Project Chimps
Last September, Alba says she found a chimp named Harriet curled up and clutching her stomach. Harriet tried to walk but couldn’t stand up straight.
Fecal testing done five days after Harriet’s symptoms began showed she had an intestinal parasite called B. coli, according to medical records Alba provided to National Geographic. McClearen, the veterinarian, administered several drugs, and her condition improved briefly, according to the same medical records. Then she relapsed. Her stool was “completely liquid,” and “she would whimper” whenever she defecated, Alba noted in the complaint she later wrote about Harriet’s medical care.
One of the primary medications recommended by the CDC for treating B. coli is metronidazole, but Harriet didn’t get it until five days after her diagnosis, the records show. Alba says she’d advocated for the medication from the start. By then, the 92-pound chimp had lost more than six pounds, according to veterinary records.
McClearen says Harriet recovered and is doing well today, but Alba says the problem, as she noted in her complaint, was that “a young, healthy chimp in our care was allowed to suffer…with far too much time passing before appropriate action was taken.”
Alba says she believes the veterinary care has been “one of the biggest problems” at Project Chimps. Adriana Villasuso, a former caregiver aide, said she believes that McClearen doesn’t “have even close to the proper knowledge” for working with chimps.
“I never professed that I was a chimpanzee expert,” McClearen says. “But I professed two things: Number one, that I was there to help, and number two, I was willing to learn. And I’ve learned a lot over the three years, and I continue to learn every day.”
As laboratories have phased out testing on chimps, finding a veterinarian with chimpanzee experience is difficult, Lincoln Park Zoo’s Steve Ross says. “I would stop short of calling it a crisis,” but it’s “a growing consideration for the sanctuary world.”
Crumpacker, who says she has “100 percent” faith in McClearen’s abilities, says that a new veterinarian who has observed or worked with chimps at NIRC and Yerkes will join the staff this summer.
Heart disease—a leading cause of death among great apes in captivity—is another concern. Former staff with qualms about Project Chimps say insufficient preventative cardiac care there is tantamount to neglect. It’s been nearly four years since the first chimps arrived there, yet they have not yet had regularly scheduled physicals. GFAS recommends that chimps be examined annually when possible.
The chimps at Yerkes in Atlanta, for example, receive annual echocardiograms and electrocardiograms to monitor heart health, says Joyce Cohen, veterinarian and associate director of that center’s Division of Animal Resources. Chimp Haven in Louisiana does physical exams every two to three years, as does Lincoln Park Zoo, a frequency that Ross says is standard practice. At NIRC, according to director Francois Villinger, chimps get annual physicals, and electrocardiograms and ultrasounds may be done when they’re older or in poor health.
At Project Chimps, however, McClearen says the chimps will undergo physical checkups every five years, starting next year, because the first chimps arrived in 2016. (Until then, Project Chimps says it refers back to records from physicals done at the lab where the chimps lived previously.) As far as heart exams, McClearen says, “we have not gotten into that.” He says the best way to prevent heart problems in chimps is a healthy diet and exercise.
‘The worst breakup I’ve ever had’
When Lindsay Vanderhoogt decided to leave Project Chimps, in 2018, she says it was the hardest decision of her life. She has the identification number of a chimp named Latricia tattooed above her right knee.
“Leaving was the worst breakup I’ve ever had,” she says. “To know that my friends aren’t being well taken care of?” It’s “heartbreaking.”
Alba says she was playing chase with a chimp named Noel right before she was fired. “I told Noel, my favorite chimp, that I’d be right back,” she says. “And that’s the last time I was able to see her because I was escorted off the property.”
Vanderhoogt, Alba, and the others who have criticized Project Chimps nonetheless do not support moving the chimps to another facility because the animals are used to their present surroundings. A move would be stressful, they say, and who would take them?
Crumpacker agrees with the sanctuary’s critics on this point—where else would the chimps go? “There is no other sanctuary to take them,” she says. “It’s not like we’re one option of five. Nobody else can take them.”
At Project Chimps, Vanderhoogt says, “everything has rested on humans to do the right thing. And so far, the humans haven’t done the right thing. But…there’s still opportunity for that.”
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com.