A group of animal welfare organizations have reached their fundraising goal to care for dozens of research chimps abandoned on an island in Liberia. But the more than $150,000 raised is still only enough to ensure the care of the chimps for a few months at best, according to the groups involved.
"I'm not calling it the finish line," said Kathleen Conlee, the vice president of animal research issues at the Humane Society of the United States, which created the online fundraising campaign. "Thankfully we have enough to be able to ensure the chimps' care in the near future, but we can't sustain this over the long run."
The 67 abandoned chimps were once a part of a research lab at the Liberian Institute of Biomedical Research (LIBR) operated by the New York Blood Center (NYBC), one of the largest blood banks in the country. The apes were brought to the area by the NYBC in 1975 and were used in research that, among other discoveries, helped lead to the development of a Hepatitis B vaccine. In 2005, the research ended and the chimps were retired on a string of small nearby islands where there was no access to natural food or water. Instead, the NYBC paid local workers to bring food and fresh water to the chimps.
But earlier this year, the NYBC told LIBR it would no longer support the care of the chimps, and completely cut off all funds in March. The HSUS, along with other animal welfare groups, supplied emergency funds to keep the chimps fed while it put together the fundraising campaign. Conservationists and animal rights groups urged the NYBC to re-establish its funding for the chimps, but the blood bank has continually denied any responsibility.
"NYBC does not own the animals in question, and never did," reads a statement from the NYBC released earlier this month. "The animals are owned by the Liberian government, and their officials have repeatedly acknowledged that they have responsibility for the care of the chimpanzees. NYBC's support of the chimpanzees was entirely voluntary, offered on a philanthropic basis until the Government of Liberia could take over."
Conlee told me the HSUS hasn't had much luck getting the NYBC to talk. Repeated requests to sit down with the NYBC to discuss the future care of the chimps have gone unanswered, she said. Last week, security guards at the NYBC headquarters refused to let the HSUS drop off a petition with more than 175,000 signatures urging the blood bank to re-establish its funding for the chimps.
"We knocked on the door and tried to deliver it to the front desk and the security guard wouldn't even open the door," Conlee said. "So we just left the petitions on their front step."
I tried, too. Since the letter informing LIBR of the funding cut was sent by Barry Greene, the executive director of sponsored programs at the NYBC, I reached out to him directly. Calls to Greene have not been returned and emails sent to him have been responded to by an external public relations firm hired by the NYBC. I went to the NYBC's Manhattan headquarters to try to contact Greene, but the security guard would not page him without an appointment. When I explained why I wanted to contact Greene, the guard told me "I don't think he's going to make himself available to answer those types of questions."
The funds raised will ensure the chimps have daily food and access to fresh water for the next six months or so, Conlee told me, but there is currently no long-term solution. Conlee said the animal welfare groups are not able to take on the care of the chimps without financial support from the NYBC, which collects millions of dollars in revenue each year and pays its executive employees six-figure salaries.
Part of the problem is that the NYBC and the government of Liberia are currently battling outa lawsuit over royalties from research at LIBR. Lifesaving vaccines can also mean big money, and though it's hard to pin down exactly how much Liberia's government and the NYBC are fighting over, considering the litigants, it's likely significant. In its 2013 tax filing, the NYBC listed 2.7 million in royalty revenues (though those could be royalties unrelated to the LIBR research) and other hepatitis B vaccines have garnered millions of dollars for drug and research companies. The government of Liberia and the NYBC are currently in arbitration over these royalties, and part of those discussions have included the Liberian government accepting responsibility for the care of the chimps, according to the NYBC.
This could be good news: if the arbitration is settled and the government agrees to foot the bill for the chimpanzees' care, the problem would be solved. But Conlee doubted it would be that simple of a solution. The war-torn and Ebola-ravaged nation is not flush with cash. Liberia's gross domestic product for 2014 was only $2 billion, and Conlee said it's unlikely the chimps would be a high priority for a government with more pressing concerns.
Meanwhile, the NYBC reported more than $300 million in revenue for 2013, and the HSUS and others think it should step up to the plate, regardless of the ongoing litigation with Liberia.
"The Liberian government doesn't have the capacity to take this on," Conlee said. "Besides, this never would have happened if the New York Blood Center hadn't stepped foot in that country."