FoA marks milestones at Primarily Primates thanks to member support

This summer you might hear more “hmm” sounds and moans than usual, as well as other vocalizations, from the ring-tailed lemurs who call Primarily Primates, Friends of Animals’ Texas-based sanctuary, home.

While typically gregarious, they’ve got even more to “talk” about because two of the largest 1999-era lemur habitats at PPI are getting an overhaul. New interior climbing structures designed to enrich lemurs’ daily exercise and play are sure to be hot topics of conversation among the 15 lemurs, five of whom came to PPI after being subjects of a university behavioral research program. The others were abandoned pets left in cages on a porch.

A lemur’s life expectancy is 16-19 years in the wild, but up to 30 years in a sanctuary like PPI, benefitting from consistent nutrition and veterinary care. Therefore maintenance of their housing and climbing structures is essential. The lemur habitat renovation is just one of the many accomplishments Friends of Animals has achieved since it took over management of PPI in 2007.

But none of it would be possible without our members’ support. The physical capacity of the renovated habitats will easily accommodate newly rescued lemurs. PPI expects it will continue to rescue lemurs indefinitely because smaller primates may be increasingly used in labs due to chimpanzees no longer being available for experimentation (See Q & A page 20). And unfortunately, people still mistakenly think that primates make good pets.

Earlier this year, PPI received a call from Broadway Oaks Jordan wanda Animal Hospital in San Antonio, alerting the sanctuary that someone dropped off a pet female ring-tailed lemur who had been mauled by a dog. Care staff at PPI appropriately named her Phoenix, a nod to classical mythology, because she has defeated hard times and challenges, which is remarkable. 

Most of her right hand was ripped off, requiring PPI’s veterinarian Dr. Valerie Kirk to perform surgery in the sanctuary’s on-site clinic, which was established in 2013, another huge milestone. Kirk removed what was left of Phoenix’s right hand along with her forearm.

But Phoenix is now thriving at PPI.

Recently, Phoenix was healthy enough for an introduction to her new companion—Jordan, another ring-tailed lemur. They are now living together, quietly grooming each other like old friends. Here are some other things FoA has achieved at PPI thanks to your investments:

THE UNVEILING OF THE PRIMADOME

March 22, 2014 was an emotional day at PPI for those gathered outside the new PrimaDome to cheer on chimps Wanda and Beauregard as they experienced the new habitat for the first time. Enrichment elements in the PrimaDome, (aka Oliver’s Playground, which was named after a former resident at PPI), include a grassy floor, a variety of climbing structures and hammocks, and a cupola where chimpanzees can climb 25 feet to view the tree tops. Overhead tunnels connect habitats so that three to five groups of chimpanzees have access to this exciting area in which to explore.

Young Oliver sometimes moved fully upright, instead of hunching forward on shoulders and arms as most chimpanzees do. Like many others in the 1960s, Oliver was stolen as a youngster from a family of chimpanzees in Africa, and would never again go home. 

It was his quirky way of walking that set the peculiar fate that would befall Oliver, because it caught the eye of entertainers who saw the opportunity to market the hapless soul as the “Missing Link” between humans and the rest of the animal world.

So Oliver became an international spectacle: the Humanzee. A string of promoters, including New York lawyer Michael Miller, touted Oliver as a possible chimpanzee-human hybrid. Seen on The Ed Sullivan Show and Japan’s Nippon television, Oliver was touted as a sherry-sipping, stogie-puffing, coffee-loving, jet-setting star who was sexually attracted to humans.

Few ever mentioned that Oliver once lived free in the Congo. Or that the promoters tethered and led Oliver by a chain. After the entertainment world lost interest, Oliver was sold, one last time, to the research-broker Buckshire Corporation of Pennsylvania. The flexibility of the PrimaDome allows care staff to vary play elements and hide toys and treats for the apes to discover throughout the day.

“A captive animal of such high intelligence as a chimpanzee needs regular mental stimulation to ward off boredom and maintain good mental and physical health,” said Kirk, PPI’s veterinarian. “This playground provides that and lends itself very well to the addition of further enrichment, making each visit to the playground a stimulating and fun adventure.”

The seed for the $110,000 PrimaDome was planted in 2012 when FoA President Priscilla Feral toured the Center for Great Apes, a lovely sanctuary for chimpanzees and orangutans in Florida with an array of enclosures marketed by PrimaDome. The company’s geodesic domes connected through overhead tunnels to other habitats. Seeing the apes enjoying the vertical space inside the domes, Feral was inspired and introduced this design to PPI.

Oliver’s Playground was made possible by support from the San Antonio Area Foundation and other generous donations. Producer and director of Danger Dog Films, Andy Cockrum, joined by his father, made the first pledge to start off the fundraising effort at PPI.

FIRST MAJOR SURGERY ON SITE

When obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Lillian Jones first met Effie, a 28-year-old chimpanzee resident at PPI, she admits the animal was larger than she anticipated. But that didn’t deter her from wanting to perform a hysterectomy that would save the chimp’s life. “I decided right away that I would do the surgery,” Jones recalled. Effie needed a hysterectomy to remove large fibroid tumors. 

Effie needed a miracle and she got something even better, a whole team of miracle workers, who performed the successful one-and-a-half hour procedure on March 20, 2015 inside PPI’s first brick and mortar clinic.

Effie was born at a research facility in San Antonio and then sold to the now-defunct Coulston Foundation, which was located in New Mexico, in 1998. Despite animal welfare violations, Coulston grew to be the largest holding of chimpanzees for biomedical research in the world. Before it was shut down, chimpanzees were used for toxicology, pre-clinical drug testing, as well as infectious disease research.

Naturally, Effie was quite shy and wary when she first came to the sanctuary. After the surgery, however, Effie was not only given a second chance at life, the surgery made her much more outgoing because of the extra time spent with care staff.

GREEN SPACE INITIATIVE

An initiative to increase new green spaces at the sanctuary to enrich the experiences of lemurs, capuchins and macaques came to fruition in 2015. The grass bottom spaces range from 10 by 12 feet to 15 by 25 feet and are landscaped naturally to replicate the primates’ habitat in the wild. They are connected to their existing enclosures and feature lots of ropes and vines, providing ample room and opportunity to play and discover.

The addition of the new green spaces gives primates a more stimulating environment because they have additional choices as to how they would like to spend their day. We continue to construct more green spaces each year.

CHIMPANZEE BEDROOM MAKEOVERS

Cheetah, Siri and Violet, who reside up on the hill overlooking the pond at PPI, were the first to get night building makeovers that not only include structural enhancements, but also improves the comfort and coziness of their bedrooms. Seven more have been completely remodeled since the project got underway in 2015.

In captivity a chimp’s life expectancy is 50 years, so sanctuaries like PPI must keep up with maintenance of their housing, ensuring it will last for many years to come. This renovation extends the life of their habitat 20-25 years. The use of galvanized steel around the exterior of the bedrooms and on access doors eliminates rust and bare metal, which also provides a safer environment for chimps.

The six-bedroom enclosure model has been reconfigured to create two large bedrooms. Staff members have discovered that when sleeping, chimpanzees tend to crowd together to stay warm, so smaller bedrooms can become cramped. Creating two large bedrooms alleviates this issue.

Increasing warmth will be even more appreciated in the winter months. The larger bedroom configuration also allows the creation of new bedding structures in the future, such as hanging hammocks. Since most of the chimps who call PPI home are over 35, including this group, railings have been installed to make it easier for them to move around their bedrooms and to climb into their beds.

Less individual bedrooms make cleaning and sanitizing easier too, which creates an overall healthier environment. All in all, the renovations are a win-win for the chimps and their care staff, and everyone at PPI is extremely grateful to members and The Aid to Helpless Animals Trust and Winnie Converse Tappan Charitable Trust of the San Antonio Area Foundation for making the improvements possible.

CAPUCHIN HABITAT PROJECT 

In 2015, PPI tore down two worn out capuchin enclosures that were built in the 1980s to replace them with a new 35’-by-35’-by-20’ high new habitat. The more modern expanded structure has greatly improved the living and sleeping areas for the capuchins. The new habitat offers more sunshine, and a safe interesting area full of components that lend themselves to exercise and mental stimulation. Capuchins are indigenous to Central and South America and are known for their intelligence, which is why they have been exploited through vivisection and the entertainment industry.

It has been well documented that they not only use tools, but teach their offspring to perform complicated tasks using tools too. As you can see, FoA is constantly reaching new milestones at PPI, while striving to create new ways to improve the lives of the 350 animals who call the sanctuary home. While it’s a labor of love, we are eternally grateful for the support of our members and donors who sustain our efforts.