I first heard about "Monkey Island" during my time in the US military in Liberia. After more than a decade of being torn apart by two civil wars, the country was rebuilding itself and its army, and I was part of a small contingent of American military advisors sent to train the Liberian Special Forces.
During training, some of the Liberians told me about an island on which there was an HIV testing center that had been abandoned during the wars in the 1990s. Now, people spoke about apes infected with AIDS that had escaped from their cages and taken over the island. Locals were afraid to approach; anyone who stepped foot on the island, they said, would be attacked.
Last year, we traveled to what locals call Monkey Island — actually six small islands — to see for ourselves. The real story of the island, and how the apes came to live on it, turned out to be somewhat different than what the locals had told me years before. The story was also far more tragic — and today, the tragedy is poised to become complete.
In 1975, the New York Blood Center (NYBC), a blood bank and research facility, signed a contract with a government-sponsored science institution known as the Liberian Biomedical Research Center. The partnership established a new research body called Vilab II to conduct studies using chimpanzees, the only non-human primates susceptible to hepatitis, in Liberia. That made the animals good models for research, and the remote location kept the research off the radar of animal rights activists.
The former Vilab II facility is situated off a dirt road about an hour's drive from the capital city of Monrovia. Giant ape statues line the gated entrance, and the encroaching jungle frames a series of cement buildings. A few toys are still scattered around cages overgrown with vines, which used to house the chimpanzees and other research animals. The lab is mostly abandoned, but late last year one wing was still active with a group of American military scientists working on the emerging Ebola crisis.
VICE News' Kaj Larsen travels to 'Monkey Island' in 'Island of the Apes.'
The presence of military scientists in the middle of an Ebola crisis at an abandoned ape-testing facility would be enough to get any conspiracy theorist's heart racing. But the history of the jungle lab is what gives the place its eerie feeling.
Over the years, dozens of scientists and primatologists traveled to Liberia to conduct research at Vilab II. One of the most noteworthy achievements was made by Tulane University professor Preston Marx, who discovered HIV-2, a rare mutation of the HIV virus, in a tiny grey pet monkey found in a nearby village.
But the star attractions were the chimpanzees, used primarily for hepatitis research. According to Betsy Brotman, an American researcher who ran Vilab II for almost 35 years, there were no chimps at Vilab II when she and her staff from the NYBC arrived in Liberia. Over the course of the next three decades, they would acquire chimpanzees, encourage them to breed, and use them as test subjects. Brotman believes that scientifically significant — and even life-saving — vaccines were tested on her animals.
Once testing was completed on the animals, they were released to the island.
Brotman, who ran the remote lab in Liberia with her husband, was one of few foreigners who remained in the country during the civil war. Despite the presence of cross-dressing cannibals and LSD-addled child soldiers, and daily killings occurring all around, the pair remained, determined to continue the research and look after the facility's staff and chimpanzees.
Brotman is now 72. She lives in New Jersey, surrounded by grandchildren and pictures of her life in Liberia, and speaks matter-of-factly about the bloodshed she witnessed while trying to keep Vilab II going. Often under gunfire, she continued to care for the animals, saving not only their lives but the lives of many surrounding villagers. She negotiated by radio on several occasions with infamous Liberian warlord Charles Taylor. Brotman, normally stoic, described a night when fighters came to her home, which was on the laboratory grounds, and accused her of spying. When her husband, who also worked at the center, tried to intervene, they murdered him in front of her. She begged the soldiers to kill her as well, but they refused, afraid doing so would anger Taylor.
Despite the murder of her husband, Brotman stayed in Liberia for several more years to care for the animals. But by the early 2000s, animal rights activists had become aware of the lab and the animal testing being done there. Pressure mounted, and in 2005 all research was ended and the lab was eventually closed. In 2007, the NYBC ended its contractual relationship — but honoring what Brotman says was a lifetime promise, the organization continued to provide support for the care and feeding of the chimpanzees who had been used as research subjects over the years. There are now more than 60 chimps on the island who require food, water, and medical attention.
The NYBC provided this support at a cost of about $30,000 per month — until this past March.
After a dispute with the Liberian government, the NYBC cut off funding for the lab animals it left on the islands. The NYBC declined a request for comment, but a public relations firm issued an email statement on its behalf: "NYBC's contractual relationship ended in 2007, and all land, buildings, and the chimps themselves are the property of the Liberian government. Like all NGOs who provide temporary support in times of need, NYBC had been supporting the sanctuary on a voluntary basis (although NYBC had no obligation to do so) until such time as the Government of Liberia could take over."
"I was shocked and stunned," Brotman said of hearing about her former employer's decision. "They have a moral, ethical, everything responsibility. They brought the chimps there… and they benefitted from the chimps being there."
Brotman says the tests conducted on primates in Liberia led to a big payday for Vilab II.
"There were royalties," she said. "There was a royalty from a Korean vaccine. There was a royalty for a procedure for an activation from blood and blood products…. These procedures [were] developed at the blood center, but safety and efficacy was tested at Vilab. Those vaccines would never have been approved without the testing at Vilab."
Brotman doesn't know how much Vilab II made off of the drugs developed with testing in Liberia, but she says it could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The NYBC and the government of Liberia are currently in the midst of a court battle over the royalties earned from the drugs.
"There was an obligation beyond the fact that they made money," Brotman said. "They are responsible, and they promised to take care of [the chimpanzees] for their lifetime."
Once the NYBC withdrew funding, other organizations, most notably the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), stepped up to provide food and water to the animals. A crowdfunding site has also raised more than $150,000 for the care of the chimps. Earlier this year, the apes were getting fed only every other or every third day by volunteer caretakers and reportedly losing weight; they also were in need of better access to fresh water. Recently, however, HSUS was able to implement a daily feeding schedule and improve the animals' access to fresh water.
"It's just not right to take away the freedom of chimpanzees, involuntarily enlist them in experiments, and then abandon them when you think no one is paying attention, leaving their fate to chance," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society. "We all have responsibilities to animals, but especially those organizations that did harm to them and profited from their use."
Anger over the fate of the chimps shows no sign of abating. On June 4, animal rights activists picketed the NYBC. And on July 20, protesters gathered outside the home of Howard Milstein, the NYBC chairman of the board.
For now, the fate of the Liberian chimpanzees is unclear. Brotman, who still remembers many of them by name, in many ways has tried to close the door on that chapter of her life. But when I showed her video of the chimpanzees, she was visibly moved. One of them, who approached our cameras, was missing an arm.
"Oh, that's Bullet." she said. "He came to us when his mother was killed by a poacher."
Bullet had been injured during the hunt, and his arm had to be amputated. Bullet is 38; he came to Vilab II at 3 years old and for 35 years has been under its care.
"I only want the chimps to be taken care of," Brotman said.
UPDATE — August 17, 2015: This story has been changed to reflect new feeding procedures recently implemented by HSUS.
Follow Kaj Larsen on Twitter: @kajlarsen
Photo via Wikimedia