Cham­pi­ons of the chim­panzees

Brittany Mann meets a cou­ple car­ing for an­i­mals who have en­dured hellish lives.

Sunday News - - NEWS -

WHEN Jenny and Jim Des­mond ar­rived in Liberia a year ago, they didn’t ex­pect to stay.

The cou­ple, raised in Cal­i­for­nia and Maine re­spec­tively, had work lined up man­ag­ing a pri­mate sanc­tu­ary at Colobus Con­ser­va­tion in Kenya.

But in July 2015, the cou­ple got a call from The Hu­mane So­ci­ety of the United States. They were told 66 chimps had been left to starve to death on a series of is­lands in Liberia. Would they be able to help?

The an­i­mals had been used for re­search by the New York Blood Cen­tre (NYBC), a not-for-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion, for about 30 years. When the re­search pro­gramme ended, the chimps were re­tired to the man­grove is­lands down the road from the lab.

The six is­lands, ac­ces­si­ble only by boat, have no food or con­sis­tent fresh­wa­ter sources. For about seven years, the NYBC paid the chimps’ for­mer cap­tors to ferry them food and wa­ter ev­ery other day. Then, in the midst of the worst Ebola epi­demic in his­tory, the NYBC stopped pay­ing. It had never owned the chimps, it stated. They were the Liberian govern­ment’s re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Per­haps the NYBC thought no one would no­tice. But in­ter­na­tional sci­en­tists visit­ing the chimps’ for­mer res­i­dence dur­ing the Ebola cri­sis no­ti­fied The Hu­mane So­ci­ety.

The Des­monds planned to stay in Liberia for five weeks. A year later, they are still there.

They turned down the job in Kenya, with the house by the beach and week­ends off, to over­see the Liberia Chim­panzee Res­cue (LCR) project on be­half of The Hu­mane So­ci­ety.

‘‘We don’t take days off, we don’t take hours off,’’ Jenny says. ‘‘We knew it was go­ing to be the most chal­leng­ing thing we’d ever done.’’

Jenny and Jim met at a brew­ery in Bos­ton. As new­ly­weds, they back­packed around the world, visit­ing lo­cal wildlife at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity. When they re­turned to the US, where Jim spent five years study­ing to­wards a vet­eri­nary de­gree, and Jenny gained a masters in so­cial work.

The cou­ple didn’t mess about seek­ing ca­reer ad­vice. They wrote to renowned pri­ma­tol­o­gist Jane Goodall.

‘‘I don’t know what I thought,’’ Jenny says. ‘‘Like she’s go­ing to write me back – yeah, right. But she did.’’

To­day, they live at the lab chimps’ for­mer res­i­dence: the Liberia In­sti­tute for Bio­med­i­cal Re­search.

LCR has re-em­ployed many of the men who’d kept the chimps alive on the is­lands. Fruit and veg­eta­bles are sourced from farm­ers and mar­kets across the county at a cost of US$200 a day and de­liv­ered by mo­torised dinghy. The project’s to­tal oper­at­ing costs hover about US$20,000 a month, cov­ered by a patch­work of grants, donors, and fundrais­ing.

The an­i­mals, orig­i­nally cap­tured from the wild or bought from pet traf­fick­ers, bear few phys­i­cal signs of what they en­dured at the re­search fa­cil­ity. Some had been anaes­thetised up­wards of 400 times.

Jenny says the na­ture of chimp re­search is in­hu­mane, even if it isn’t ma­li­cious.

Oth­ers view the ex­per­i­ments as a nec­es­sary evil. The NYBC web­site states more than one mil­lion lives were saved through vac­cines and stem cell ther­a­pies de­vel­oped at Vialab II.

The NYBC, which the Hu­mane So­ci­ety re­ports has more than US$475 mil­lion in as­sets, has BRITTANY MANN ig­nored Fair­fax’s re­quests for com­ment.

Jenny is hon­est about the chal­lenges of life in Liberia – the in­fra­struc­ture, poverty, tor­ren­tial rain, suf­fo­cat­ing heat.

And yet, the cou­ple could achieve an un­prece­dented feat: es­tab­lish­ing a chim­panzee sanc­tu­ary in Liberia. Brittany Mann trav­elled to Liberia in March. She paid her own way.

Left: Jim Des­mond with Lucy, who was close to death when she ar­rived at the cen­tre he and his wife Jenny run in Liberia. Be­low: Jenny and Jim called on in­ter­na­tion­ally-renowned pri­ma­tol­o­gist Dame Jane Goodall for ad­vice. Above: for­mer staff at the re­search cen­tre now feed the chimps.

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