When US researchers left Monkey Island, it was up to the caretaker to save the chimps

It costs thousands of pounds to keep feeding these apes, who were once tested on for hep B vaccines. But a small group of carers stayed to look after them through thick and thin

Friday 27 December 2019 16:20 GMT
Feeding time: chimps at the colony in Liberia
Feeding time: chimps at the colony in Liberia (AFP/Getty)

All is quiet when the motorboat putters to a stop. Saltwater laps at the narrow sandy shore. Mangrove leaves flutter in the breeze. Then a man in a blue life jacket cups his hands around his mouth and shouts: Hoo hoo!

Like a secret password, the call unlocks a hidden primate universe. Dozens of chimpanzees emerge from the brush, hairy arms extended. They wade up to the rusty vessel with the nonchalance of someone fetching the mail.

“Time to eat,” says Joseph Thomas, their wiry guardian of 40 years, tossing bananas into the furry crowd.

‘That’s Mabel,’ said Thomas, pointing to a 100lb female. ‘Look! She likes to wash her food in the water’

Chimps aren’t supposed to be stuck on their own island – especially one with no food – or mingle with much-weaker humans.

But nothing about Liberia’s Monkey Island is normal. It’s a spectacle, an increasingly costly burden and the enduring legacy of American scientists who set out to cure hepatitis B in 1974.

Animal testing has existed since doctors in ancient Greece studied the anatomy of rodents – an estimated 115 million creatures are still used each year in research worldwide – but rarely is the aftermath so visible. Rarely is it so hungry.

This colony of 66 chimpanzees, which never learned to survive in the wild, eats roughly 500lbs of produce each day, plus a weekly batch of hard-boiled eggs for protein. They rely on money from a charity abroad and the devotion of men who’ve known them since they lived in steel cages.

“That’s Mabel,” says Thomas, the captain of that small crew, pointing to a 100lb female. “Look! She likes to wash her food in the water.”

As if on cue, Mabel dunks her banana in the mud-brown river.

Thomas, 60, met the chimp, 36, when she was a baby, and pressed the soft black pads of her fingers into his open palm.

The New York researchers who once injected her with viruses quit the country on Africa’s western coast during the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history, abandoning Mabel and other animals that can live up to half a century.

Thomas hadn’t planned to devote his life to protecting chimps through epidemic and civil war.

His long, strange mission started on the tennis court. He dreamed of becoming a professional athlete until he met a researcher from the New York Blood Centre. She would give him a job, he said, if he could give her tennis lessons.

At times, it has been difficult to find the funding for enough food to keep the apes alive (AFP/Getty) (AFP via Getty Images)

At 20, Thomas became a caretaker at the nonprofit’s chimp laboratory in Robertsville, a remote town about 20 miles from the capital, Monrovia. He fed the animals, cleaned up after them and got to know their personalities, which ranged from shy to class clown.

He was promoted four years later to the medical technician. The chimps were infected with hepatitis and river blindness, an eye sickness caused by a parasite, while researchers developed vaccines.

He tended the animals as if they were his children. He hoped the experiments would ease suffering in West Africa and beyond.

Chimp testing doesn’t happen any more. They hate to be cooped up. They laugh, cry, get jealous and have temper tantrums – “just like us”, Thomas says.

He tended the animals as if they were his children. He hoped the experiments would ease suffering in West Africa and beyond. The New York Blood Centre set up shop in Liberia because chimps – now considered an endangered species – were already climbing the trees of its dense forests.

No one expected the lab to tumble into chaos.

Some tourist guidebooks irresponsibly direct people to the island (AFP/Getty) (AFP via Getty Images)

In the early 1990s, Charles Taylor – the rebel leader who would become Liberia’s 22nd president and later a convicted war criminal – unleashed his ragtag army across the country, killing thousands and forcing others from their homes.

The American researchers fled. Thomas stayed behind with the chimps. Taylor’s soldiers, he says, stole the lab’s cars.

Conflict surged into the 2000s as militants fought for control of Liberia, and public pressure to end testing on chimps snowballed. The New York Blood Centre halted tests in 2004, sparking a big question: what would they do with all the animals?

Placing them back in the nation’s forests wasn’t an option. They could spread disease to others, and they didn’t know how to pick fruit or hunt insects.

Charles Taylor, a despot whose rule ravaged Liberia (AFP/Getty) (AFP via Getty Images)

Another problem arose from their artificial comfort zone. What if the chimps heard the familiar sound of people talking – or poachers talking – and ambled out to say hi?

“The only way to hold them was to put them on an island,” Thomas says.

There are six islands in the Farmington and Gbage rivers. These makeshift sanctuaries on the Atlantic coast became known collectively as Monkey Island.

Thomas and the other caretakers collected funds from New York to deliver buckets of bananas and lettuce, among other goods, to the chimps every two days. A vet stayed on the nonprofit’s payroll to check on the animals.

In 2009, the New York Blood Centre said it was becoming hard to pay for Monkey Island. The charity said it contacted Liberia’s then-president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, for help but received no reply. (A spokesperson for Sirleaf declined to comment.)

By 2015, as the Ebola virus ravaged the country, the New York Blood Centre notified the Liberian government that it could “no longer divert funds from its important lifesaving mission here at home”, a spokesperson said in a recent statement.

Thomas stuck to the feeding schedule until the last penny was gone.

Over the years, Monkey Island has become a local legend, though some news articles have painted the inhabitants as infectious threats

He went with the other caretakers from fruit stall to fruit stall, seeking donations – a daunting task in a time of epidemic. One particularly generous neighbour gave him 50 pieces of coconut. The men gathered enough food to keep the chimps alive, if not full, for a few weeks.

During that period, Thomas remembers pulling up to islands and seeing frantic, desperate animals. They screamed and fought over scraps. It wasn’t enough.

He told the story to whoever would listen, he says, and eventually found a sympathetic ear with connections to the Humane Society International in Washington.

The nonprofit has since bankrolled the care, spending about £400,000 annually on Monkey Island. Meals now happen twice a day. The price grows, though, as the colony does.

Despite the best family planning efforts of the team of 10 caretakers – they have carried out vasectomies for males and slipped birth control pills in sugary milk paste – the chimps have had a few babies. “Very cute accidents,” Humane Society International chief executive Kitty Block says.

Me and my monkey: a carer and a chimpanzee from the original lab testing group (AFP/Getty) (AFP via Getty Images)

Over the years, Monkey Island has become a local legend, though some news articles have painted the inhabitants as infectious threats.

“A bunch of ‘monster’ chimps are living on their own island in a Planet of the Apes meets Resident Evil-style scenario,” one Australian reporter wrote in 2018.

Thomas rolls his eyes.

The public should stay away from animals that might get spooked and attack, he says, but it’s unclear if the chimps still carry disease. Tests are too expensive.

The caretakers dream of building an animal hospital on one of the sanctuaries, as well as a proper security system to keep people away. As of now, one man sits on a small dock off each island, telling onlookers to scram.

That doesn’t stop fishermen from floating over for a peek, and guidebooks from irresponsibly advising tourists to hitch a ride.

No one can get as close as Thomas. Photos show him standing knee-deep in river water, hugging the chimps he sees as family.

He greets them by name: Mabel. Stuart. Juno. Ellyse. Annie.

“I’ll be doing this,” he says, “until they die or I do.”

© The Washington Post

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