Believe it or not, a real-life Planet of the Apes does exist in an isolated area located deep in the jungles of West Africa. It’s home to dozens of retired laboratory chimpanzees who were at one point used for medical research. These chimps are practically heroes – they’ve managed to survive disease, two civil wars and numerous medical tests and experiments.
The apes are former residents of The Liberian Institute of Biomedical Research (Vilab II) which played a pivotal role in developing treatments for ailments such as Hepatitis during the 1970s. It was shut down in the mid-2000s due to growing pressure from animal rights activists, and the apes were transferred to a remote Liberian island in the middle of Farmington River, to live a life of quiet retirement.
The island – known to locals as ‘Monkey Island’ – is home to over 60 chimps who only allow familiar caretakers to approach its shores. Their story was covered in a short documentary film called Island of the Apes made to promote the 2014 film Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
The film depicted American journalist Kaj Larsen’s journey to Monkey Island, and his experiences there. To reach the island, Larsen had to drive 40 miles from Monrovia to the village of Marshall, and then negotiate with the locals to take him to the island on one of their canoes. After striking a deal for $80, he also had to purchase fruit offerings for the chimpanzees. Larsen was also told in no uncertain terms that he must not step on the island if he values his life. “They will eat you raw!” the villagers warned. “If you are a strange person, okay, when you go there, they become aggressive,” said Jerry, a security guard at the island. “But the only thing, the chimps, they are afraid of water. They don’t swim across. They just walk at the water edge.”
As the boat pulled up to the island, the chimps caught a glimpse of Larsen’s team and began to shout and scream in agitation. Things seemed to get out of hand as a huge male charged out at the boat, but it retreated as the water got deeper. “They were super aggressive baring their teeth when we first showed up, but now that we’ve got some food out, they’ve calmed down a lot,” Larsen said. “Even as I floated just a few feet from the apes, it was hard to believe that this place actually existed,” he added. But what he found even more astonishing was the story behind how and why they got there.
He traveled to the Vilab campus, where he learned that over 100 chimpanzees were injected with infectious diseases in the hope of finding cures. Larsen interviewed Betsy Brotman, former director of Vilab, in order to learn more about the facility. She explained that Liberia was chosen for its large population of chimpanzees. “A lot of people had pet chimpanzees,” she revealed. “And when they get past a certain age of around five, they aren’t very good pets any more. And that’s how we acquired our animals until we had enough breeding age animals.”
“They’re the only susceptible species for Hepatitis,” Dr. Preston Marx, a virologist working at the institute, explained. “Once a chimpanzee will be Hepatitis positive, then you start needing naive animals (that have not been used in experiments). So they started releasing them on to these islands. The reason they could do that is because chimpanzees can’t swim.” There were six islands in all where the chimps were released.
As trouble began to brew in Liberia in 1989, which would result in two gory civil wars, the Vilab program was at threat. In the midst of all the violence, they were struggling to continue research and also protect the chimps that were released on to the islands. Betsy decided to stay on, even though that meant putting her life at risk, simply because the hundreds of animals needed to be fed. Eventually, she found herself compelled to help the human victims of war, as well.
Both the lab and its employees managed to remain unharmed until 1993, when the civil war finally made its way to their doorstep. Terrorist forces stormed into Betsy’s home one day and went after her husband Brian, assuming that he had worked for former Liberian President Charles Taylor. Sadly, Brian was shot and killed.
Photo: AACC Liberia
Even after the horrific incident, Betsy refused to leave the chimps and the people who needed her help. She continued to work at the lab and made it through both civil wars. In the end, it wasn’t the war but the change of public opinion towards animal-testing that brought about the closure of the lab. Anti-testing videos were released that depicted the cruel methods employed at other facilities, ultimately turning the tide against the practice. In the late 1990s, scientists concluded that most chimp testing was more cruel than effective. But the documentary does state that the research Betsy and her team conducted at Vilab lead to life-saving vaccinations for Hepatitis B as well as a screening method for Hepatitis C – two diseases that combined, affect millions of people worldwide.
In 2005, Vilab caved, unable to withstand the pressure from animal rights activists. “I think they were right,” Betsy admitted. “Chimpanzees shouldn’t really be used in experiments. I really do feel this way. If you’re going to do work in chimpanzees, you should set up a system so that at the end of the research they have a place where they can be retired to, so that they can live a nice chimp life to the best of whatever is available.” And that is what Monkey Island is all about – Betsy, along with a core of support staff, continue to feed and care for all the retired chimps. A group of trained Liberian caretakers visit the island every other day to bring food to the chimps, observe them and make sure all the animals are doing all right.
Much to Larsen’s surprise, when he made a second visit to the island along with the caretakers, the chimps were very well behaved. “This time it was clear that the chimps were very familiar with the caretakers and trusted them completely,” he said. “As for the chimps themselves, although they were infected with diseases like Hepatitis when they were originally retired here, many, if not all, have since fully recovered,” he added. The chimps truly to appear happy and well-adjusted to this sanctuary of their own.
Source: VICE Motherboard