On the Other Side of the Glass

 

 

She stands close to the glass and puckers up, making a kissy face. The chimpanzee on the other side of the glass, Tonka, meets her lips with his own exaggerated kiss. Then he presses his lips against the glass as though for another kiss. He shakes his head goofily, tongue lolling, and she does the same. They take turns mirroring each other’s expressions. When she kisses the glass with a silly, spluttery raspberry, he cracks up. When she holds up a phone and plays a video of their interaction, he puts his finger on his chin and watches himself with interest. His expression is unmistakable: Damn, I look good.

Tonka is living in Festus, Missouri, in a metal cage. The woman is there undercover, helping People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals gather information.

It breaks her heart to see these animals captive behind glass, mocked and laughed at, “never acknowledged as a being with an identity of their own.” She concentrates hard, trying to let him know she sees that. Whenever she does this with captive animals, she feels a response: a light in their eyes, a coming closer. “They are so happy to be acknowledged,” she tells people. “They have been ignored for so long.”

Five years will pass before PETA manages to get these chimpanzees sprung.

This July, it happens.

 

•  •  •

 

The chimps in Festus worked for their captors’ Chimparty business, posing for Hallmark cards, entertaining kids, and acting in George of the Jungle, Babe: Pig in the City, and several other films. Then the Caseys set up a nonprofit, the Missouri Primate Foundation. When they lost their nonprofit status, they kept the chimps as pets.

PETA filed suit in 2016, alleging unsanitary conditions and inadequate food and medical care. Last year, after three escapes and at least two attacks (chimps feel empathy; one bit off the nose of Connie Casey’s ex-husband), PETA negotiated the removal of four chimps from the Caseys’ home. They would go to live at an accredited sanctuary, the Center for Great Apes, in Florida. The other three could be kept by their hired caretaker, Tonia Haddix, who said she was building a facility in Stoddard County and starting a nonprofit called Chimp Hope International.

Connie Casey had spent nearly thirty years sheltering, breeding, selling, and hiring out chimpanzees, who she said were “like members of our family.” She showed a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter a big cage where adult chimps could hang out in her living room and said the baby chimps slept, diapered, in cribs. She explained how similar chimpanzee DNA is to ours, how “they have the same bones and organs, and blood from them can actually be transfused to us, which, unfortunately for them, is why they’re so often used for research.”

 

•  •  •

 

Chimpanzees have been bred for lab research, infected with HIV, sent into outer space. They are vulnerable to many of the same illnesses we are, including Alzheimer’s. They also experience many of the same emotions. After being used for research projects, they showed signs of PTSD. They are on the endangered list, mainly because we have destroyed their habitat, hunted them for meat or medicine, or bought and sold them in exotic animal trade. Fewer than 300,000 are now thought to be living in the wild—down from a million in the early 1900s.

As desperately social as teenage girls, chimpanzees hang out in small groups known as “parties.” They can live to be fifty or older—longer than the average human life expectancy before 1950. They use tools, invent games, solve problems, understand symbols, cooperate, and pass the mirror test, showing self-awareness. They also grieve, and they are capable of what researchers call flexible empathy. In their natural habitat, they spend much of their day in the treetops.

At the Festus facility, there was an enclosed metal tunnel and a collection of barren metal cages found and documented to be filled with feces, urine, and trash. Some of the chimps were isolated, and the others were unable to spend time in natural social groups. Many chimps were bred at the Festus facility over the years. A volunteer saw one mother, Tammy, screaming and refusing to eat when her baby was taken from her to be sold.

In nature, young chimps, like our kids, stick close to their parents until age nine.

 

•  •  •

 

Haddix never opened her promised facility. She continued to care for the chimps in Festus. In June, a judge ordered the remaining six chimps removed, but Haddix told Fox 2’s Chris Hayes, “They’re not getting the chimps. They’re not getting them…. I’ve decided I’m keeping all of them, just for the principle of the matter.”

The federal marshals came. The chimps are now at the Center for Great Apes sanctuary, where they will live in three-story-tall domed enclosures and run along high mesh tunnels through tropical forest.

“Yesterday was a really sad day for all of us,” Haddix told Fox 2 tearfully. “We spent every moment that we could with the chimps all day yesterday and got them their happy meals.”

Do I believe the tears? Yes. You cannot spend that much time with animals that lively and intelligent and not form a relationship. But I am more concerned with what the chimpanzees are feeling. You have probably seen the zany grin of Connor, one of the Festus captives, on bright Hallmark cards—but animal behavior experts point out that what looks to us like a happy, toothy grin is often an agitated grimace. Connor reportedly bit his handler and tried to attack three other people on the set of what turned out to be his final photo shoot. I have a hard time blaming him.

The lovely domed enclosure at the Florida sanctuary is a big step up—but maybe like getting a corner office in a company you would rather quit.

At least Tammy will be able to meet one of her grown sons, because five chimps born at the Festus compound (then sold as pets) were also rescued and are living at the sanctuary.

Tonka—the chimp the undercover volunteer kissed through the glass—was not rescued. Haddix told authorities she found him dead in his cage one morning.

 

Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

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