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What We’ve Learned

A Chimp’s Death Leads to Bold Change at the
World’s Largest Privately Funded Sanctuary for Chimpanzees

When Tiffany the chimp was euthanized on the morning of August 16, 2018, it was the end of two months of heartbreak, struggle and frustration for the staff at Save the Chimps (STC) in Fort Pierce, Florida.

It also became the catalyst for bold change for an organization known for taking on bold initiatives. Eighteen months after Tiffany died, Save the Chimps leadership and structure are dramatically different – there is an entirely new leadership team, with the addition of Dr. Shelly Lakly as Executive Director; there’s a brand-new veterinary team led by Dr. Valerie Kirk; there’s a new Director of Human Resources, Jennifer Brown; the kitchen and veterinary department have been entirely revamped and the behavior department dramatically restructured.

In this detailed report, we aim to take you on this journey with us–using Tiffany’s death as a way to highlight the ways we have grown– we owe it to our amazingly dedicated staff and to our loyal supporters to be as honest and transparent as we can.

Tiffany had been voluntarily surrendered to STC—  the world’s largest privately funded sanctuary for retired and rescued chimpanzees—  from her former owner in Missouri on April 14th of 2018. At the age of only thirteen, Tiffany was one of two chimpanzees surrendered that day— both had been raised by a private owner who loved and adored his “pets” (chimpanzees should not be raised as pets) but who was ill equipped to deal with two boisterous and growing chimpanzees.

As is the case with any chimpanzee being transferred across state lines, a physical exam was conducted. While her companion, Tuffy, was found in decent health (albeit overweight), Tiffany’s physical revealed she was positive for Epstein Barr virus. Rather than let her remain in living conditions not suitable for a growing chimpanzee, STC decided to bring her to sanctuary, regardless of her health status. In humans, Epstein Barr virus causes mononucleosis, in non-human primates it “is often the kiss of death,” according to an article in Science. It can cause wasting disease as well as a host of other ailments.

The first few weeks for Tiffany at STC were an adjustment, as they always are. “Former pets can be the most difficult cases to transition to sanctuary life,” added STC Director of Behavior and Chimpanzee Care Dr. Andrew Halloran. Because Tiffany and Tuffy had been raised on a diet of junk food, the fresh food and vegetables offered at STC was quite different from their previous (unhealthy) diet. Tuffy and Tiffany arrived at STC on April 20, and almost immediately caregivers noticed differences in their eating patterns, leading some to speculate that perhaps they both had been fed one large meal later in the day, as they both seemed disinterested in early feedings.

At Save the Chimps we feed the chimps three times a day — a diet that consists of fresh vegetables and fruit as well as a balanced chow specially formulated for monkeys and apes. (For more on what we feed our chimps, see www.feedingthechimps.org.) For chimps coming from a private owner a transition to a healthy diet can take some time, and their diet is often temporarily supplemented with foods they are more comfortable with such as spaghetti or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. (Or in Tuffy’s case, baked beans, which are now substituted with chickpeas in barbecue sauce – he’s making progress!).

As soon as it became clear that Tiffany and Tuffy were having a hard time adjusting to their new feeding schedule, a food log was started as is standard practice for such cases at STC. As you can see in the graphic, a food log documents what a chimpanzee is offered as well as what was consumed— this helps all departments see a holistic picture of what is going on with a chimpanzee. In addition, an official log called a “welfare case” was started by the behavioral department on both chimpanzees. This is yet another safeguarding system that tracks behavioral markers from a separate department.  At the time, these systems, the food log, the daily chimp care log and the behavior welfare case were all separate – run by different departments on different systems.

One of the most important initiatives started by Dr. Halloran was to streamline (and professionalize) our record-keeping. “When I was hired at STC, it was apparent that we could, as a staff, improve our knowledge of accepted standards and practices in caring for chimpanzees,” added Dr. Halloran. On July 1, 2019, ZIMS, a web-based animal information management system, was rolled out by the new veterinary staff. The care and behavior staff were all trained on how to use ZIMS. All animal care and welfare information thereby became integrated into a single powerful computer program. “ZIMS has been critical in sharing real time information across departments – everyone has the same information available to them to enable quick and accurate decision making,” stated Dr. Shelly. “It’s just one of the ways Dr. Halloran and the vets have helped us professionalize our protocols.”

Despite their odd eating schedule, there are documented records of both Tiffany and Tuffy eating well their first few weeks at STC. However, in late June 2018, a common cold swept through parts of the sanctuary and both Tiffany and Tuffy came down with it. In humans, the common cold can be a nuisance. In chimpanzees, it can be deadly. “It was completely unknown that rhinovirus C could infect anything other than humans,” said Tony Goldberg, DVM, PhD, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine in a study reported in the American Veterinarian. “It was surprising to find it in chimpanzees, and it was equally surprising that it could kill healthy chimpanzees outright.”

It is one of the reasons we ask staff and volunteers to not come in when they are sick and to wear face masks when they are near a chimpanzee. It is also one of the key reasons STC is in the process of changing our kitchen layout and procedures – to prevent reverse zoonosis – the transfer of a virus or bacteria from humans to non-humans. Our new veterinarian team, led by Dr. Valerie Kirk, has been instrumental in reworking the kitchen protocols to lessen traffic through the food prep area, as well as leading the sanctuary in instituting new personal protection equipment including masks for anyone getting within four feet of a chimpanzee. “We can easily unknowingly pass on a virus that can kill a chimpanzee,” added Dr. Val.

From late June 2018 until Tiffany’s death on August 16th, there were differing opinions from staff on what should be done regarding her treatment. As Tiffany’s health and appetite declined, tensions amongst staff increased, especially senior staff. It is to be expected: these are professionals who have dedicated their time, their efforts, and in some cases, their careers to helping chimpanzees in need. To not be able to help a chimpanzee is against their very nature.

Tiffany’s challenging medical case and her death in August 2018, became a tipping point in what were reportedly stressed relationships between the senior management, veterinarians and staff at the time. The issue created such stress that over a three-to-four month period, several staff members left, including the entire veterinary team, behaviorist, CEO and others who are no longer employed at STC, for a variety of reasons ranging from resignation to retirement.

It is clear looking back now, where we failed as an organization – our employees needed help and support at a time of deep emotional crisis and we didn’t provide enough. We didn’t have a protocol in place for transparently sharing information, nor did our staff have an HR professional on staff they could turn to, nor were they provided with adequate resources to emotionally handle an unexpected and unexplainable death.

We have since hired a professional director of HR who immediately signed up our employees for a free and confidential Employee Assistance Program. In addition, she regularly holds trainings and workshops with supervisory staff on best practices. We have standardized protocols for staff following the passing of a chimp. Our vet staff is proactive about sharing information regarding procedures, diagnostics, tests and necropsy (animal autopsy) results. In addition, Dr. Halloran has since held a workshop with our care staff on compassion fatigue, with more workshops planned in the future. We send out weekly updates to staff and volunteers (and other hearts who care!) on all goings-on at the sanctuary: what procedures are being done, who is being watched for particular issues, what new initiatives we are rolling out.

How do we know we failed our staff? They told us, first in letters written to the Board, then in outreach to partner organizations like the Animal Welfare Institute and USDA. They wrote with concerns about what they felt was a “polarizing” and “non-empathetic” work environment lacking communication and HR support for employees.

The STC Board took their concerns to heart and acted immediately — bringing in independent investigators to interview staff and audit our departments and internal processes. Over a period of three weeks in the fall of 2018, former and current staff were interviewed and departments and protocols were analyzed. The fact-finding report was released to the Board and senior leadership. And the findings were telling. It was clear that strong and decisive leadership needed to be a priority for the organization. Those investments have been made, first with the addition of new Executive Director Dr. Shelly Lakly, and then with the hire of Jennifer Brown, a human resources professional who works directly with Dr. Shelly on numerous initiatives designed to strengthen the organization and better serve its 61 employees.

“Since she started, Jennifer has demonstrated key leadership, bringing Save the Chimps internal processes to a much higher, more efficient level. Her deep commitment to doing what is right, to enhancing the working lives for our employees is unmatched; it is an honor to have her as a key member of our leadership team,” stated Dr. Shelly.

In her short time with the organization, Jennifer has overhauled the Human Resources Department, streamlining vendors and processes and has instituted a formal training program for sanctuary department managers. In addition, she has recruited and successfully retained 35 full-time employees, as well as launched several initiatives including time clock management and employee goal setting. Goal setting is a top priority for Dr. Shelly. All senior staff, departments, and employees have outlined both short-term and long-term goals for 2020. “I want our staff thinking strategically about how they can help STC grow,” added Dr. Shelly.

Another way we failed our staff during and immediately following the death of Tiffany was not being clear on who is responsible for decisions regarding the care of our resident chimpanzees. It was and always has been the responsibility of the veterinary department to make any and all medical decisions regarding diet, care and treatment.  But it was clear from the communications from the staff and their communication to the USDA that a clear delineation of leadership roles and procedures was needed. And while it may have been true that other departments voiced their opinion in regards to Tiffany’s care (as they should for all our chimps), the decision making ultimately falls to the veterinarian. The fact-finding report clearly showed: “Significantly, nothing in the treatment records indicates that any staff failed to implement, disregarded, or even challenged the treatment orders of Tiffany’s veterinarians. None of the veterinarian notes indicate that the treatments prescribed for Tiffany were not carried out.”

Other departments can and should voice their opinions but ultimately all decisions on care are deferred to the vet team.  We work hard to support our new vet team and make sure everyone on staff listens to and respects their decisions, especially the difficult ones that involve life and death.

There is no question that Tiffany’s medical case was challenging, and it baffled many veterinary professionals. We are open about the challenges the team reportedly faced in treating Tiffany, and we are open to sharing the necropsy report and the fact-finding report as it relates to Tiffany’s case. To this day, the cause of her death remains undetermined despite the necropsy report by the University of Florida. “The truth is, Tiffany’s health was likely compromised before she came to Save the Chimps and our team did the best they could by her, and it wasn’t enough,” added Dr. Shelly.

During the last 18 months, as a result of the staff outreach, we have worked with the USDA numerous times, always in partnership, finding ways we can improve on our policies and procedures. Much good has come out of this strategic partnership. One of which is our newly revised Chimp Care Policy Manual drafted by staff and led by Dr. Halloran.

In addition to rolling out ZIMS which empowers each care staff to document, in real time, chimp behaviors and care issues, new Section Curators were named. Each Section Curator is charged with not only the management of their buildings, but also for planned introductions amongst chimpanzees as well as developing daily enrichment plans. (Enrichment enhances the lives of our chimps through cognitive and sensory stimulation).  “The care staff spend the most time with our chimps, they know these chimps, their likes and dislikes, their interactions – it just makes the most sense to have them making those decisions,” added Dr. Shelly.

In the last year, significant strides have been made on the veterinary side as well. Dr. Valerie Kirk came to STC a year ago and her first job was to build her team. She added two certified Vet Techs, created a position for a Pharmacy Assistant, and hired Dr. Kelsey McClure as Associate Veterinarian. There are plans to bring on another veterinarian as soon as the right candidate is identified.

Dr. Val has also worked hard to build a collegial network of professionals she can lean on in any number of ways from diagnostics to advice. This network has been key in helping expand our veterinary services. As a way to thank our medical practitioners and to build our collegial network, Save the Chimps is holding its first Medical Practitioners Appreciation Day on April 4th (to receive an invite email lisa@savethechimps.org).

In addition, the collegial network has been key in helping us develop our new procedure room. In fact, under the leadership of Dr. Val, and in discussion with visiting veterinarians and several experts, it was determined that a state-of-the-art transport vehicle with a stationary procedure room would best fit the veterinary department for all its current needs, including rescue, transport, as well as examinations and small procedures. With a grant from the Albert Schweitzer Animal Welfare Fund, a transport van was purchased and customized and a procedure room was remodeled and outfitted. As a result of our expanded on-site abilities, the veterinary department has collaborated with the Great Ape Heart Project in providing essential data for the goal of reducing cardiovascular related mortalities in great ape species. In addition, our on-site procedure room has enabled the Peter Emily International Veterinary Dental Foundation to send their teams to assist in the treatment of our resident chimpanzees. The ease of transport due to the new van and the accessibility of our procedure room enables STC to make the most of these visiting professionals. As a result, we have been able to significantly increase the number of chimps we can successfully treat for dental issues.

In addition to making the most of what we can do in-house, Dr. Shelly and the entire leadership team visited several of our sister sanctuaries in late fall of 2019. Dr. Val was impressed with the hospital suite at the Brevard Zoo and the surgical suite at Chimp Haven while everyone loved the kitchen at Project Chimps. Studying best practices from other sanctuaries is another key initiative of Dr. Shelly’s, “We can only get stronger by sharing what works best.”

In the next few weeks we will be releasing our Spring Newsletter which talks more in depth about our visits to other sanctuaries, and about some of the exciting new opportunities at the Sanctuary. Meanwhile, if you love watching videos of chimps eating as much as we do, head on over to www.feedingthechimps.org where you can do just that and learn more about the changes to our nutrition program, led by the ever-amazing Dr. Kelsey.

The staff – then and now – have never wavered in their deep commitment to providing quality care for every chimp here. We appreciate you taking the time to look at our progress and to recognize the significant changes that occurred here in the last eighteen months, not because STC was broken, but because it could be made better.  “We want to assure our most valued supporters that the commitment of our amazing team to the magnificent chimps living here with our care is more than professional, it’s personal. And we feel privileged to dedicate our lives to their well-being every day,” added Dr. Shelly.

Thank you for your continued support!