NEW ORLEANS (AP) — An animal rights group has filed a federal complaint against the federally owned national sanctuary for chimpanzees once used for experiments.
A federal citation and Chimp Haven’s own reports of an escape and deaths caused by fights between chimpanzees show that the sanctuary’s care is poor, according to Stop Animal Exploitation Now.
The sanctuary in northern Louisiana said it acted immediately after a woman was attacked in April by others she was being introduced to. This animal was euthanized in May. Another female escaped twice on June 2.
A warning letter from the US Department of Agriculture said animal handling rules were violated in both incidents. It also noted that Chimp Haven was reviewing its protocols for introducing and separating animals, and that trees near the second female’s main enclosure had been cut down to prevent future escapes.
Chimp Haven has cared for more than 500 chimpanzees since it opened in 2005. Of these, 190 have died, including five due to aggression from other chimpanzees, an e-mailed statement said.
Chimpanzees also attack and sometimes kill each other in the wild, said Michael L. Wilson, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Minnesota who studies chimpanzee behavior and biology.
“Murders… have been documented at most long-term study sites across Africa” and “can occur suddenly and unpredictably without obvious provocation,” he wrote in an email.
He participated in a 2008 study that found attacks by other chimpanzees were the second most common cause of death in 46 years in a wild colony, second only to disease. Of the 130 deaths, 17 – or 20% of the 86 for which scientists knew the cause – were due to attacks by other chimpanzees.
At Chimp Haven, the number is less than 3%.
The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service gave the warning letter to Chimp Haven in June 2021 because of the death of a female attacked by other chimpanzees and two escapes in one day by another female. The inspector noted that the sanctuary had acted to correct problems.
In December 2021, the sanctuary informed federal authorities that one man bled to death and another died after attacks by others. In the same month, it reported that seven animals had escaped through an unsecured skylight.
“Animal sanctuaries must keep animals safe and unharmed, not allow traumatic injuries that require euthanasia or escapes of potentially dangerous animals,” said Michael A. Budkie, co-founder of the Ohio-based animal rights group.
An emailed response to the sanctuary read: “The care and well-being of chimpanzees is our top priority at Chimp Haven.” He said there has never been a large-scale work to move chimpanzees “from research environments to a life that resembles life in the wild.”
This involved introducing hundreds of animals to each other, because “chimpanzees need dynamic social groups to thrive socially, physically, emotionally and psychologically.”
Very occasionally, such presentations have not worked, the statement said.
Wilson, a scientist at the University of Minnesota, wrote in his email: “Managing chimpanzees in captivity presents enormous challenges because chimpanzees are strong, intelligent, impulsive and capable of violent attacks.”
Captive chimps “probably do better in many ways if housed in social groups with multiple males and females, but these groups also pose many challenges to management, including the risks of aggression,” he wrote.