Champions of the chimpanzees
Brittany Mann meets a couple caring for animals who have endured hellish lives.
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.