Zoo to lab

Chimpanzees in entertainment are only “useful” while they are infants and juveniles. So what did the Detroit Zoo, circa 1945-1982, do with their chimpanzees after they started defying their trainers, usually around 7 or 8 years old, or sometimes even younger?
Records indicate that more than half the chimpanzees between 1934 and 1984 are “lost-to-follow,” meaning the paper trail hits a dead end when the zoo sold them. Zoo officials tell me that no one knows who they sold the chimpanzees to. However, the Chimpanzee Studbook does note what happened to some of them. More often than not, the Detroit Zoo sent their “retired” chimpanzees to research laboratories for the rest of their lives. Chimps who grew up listening to the applause of adoring crowds would spend the remaining 30 or 40 years isolated. They were physically and psychologically destroyed, most slowly but surely and some, no doubt, quickly and gruesomely.
These are some of the Detroit Zoo chimpanzees whose bodies and minds were sacrificed for research.
Dad brought Tommy and Mary home
for Christmas in the early 1950s
Tommy and Mary both arrived at the zoo as one- or two-year-olds. Tommy arrived in spring 1951, and Mary followed the next April. They each did their five-year stint in the chimp show, and then the zoo transferred them out when, as adolescents, they got too independent to obey orders from the trainers. Detroit Zoo reported that they transferred Tommy to “Leonardo” in January 1956. I have searched and searched and I cannot figure out who, what or where “Leonardo” is. The zoo sent Mary to Calgary Zoo in 1956. Within a year, she was gone from there, and there are no records to tell us where they shipped her, although Calgary Zoo is on record for turning chimpanzees over to research facilities. Tommy and Mary became two more nameless chimpanzees, probably with numbers tattooed on their chests, likely among the thousands used in research.

Dad with Tarzan and Jimmy
Detroit Zoo bought the infant Jimmy in 1947. After entertaining Detroit audiences for his cutest four years, and after a brief stop at San Antonio, Jimmy ended up at the Southwest Foundation, one of the country’s biggest biomedical research facilities. Odds are high that Jimmy was used in bioinvasive research, living isolated in a small metal cage for the rest of his life. He would never hear the applause of audiences again.

Mike and Bobo were both infants, captured in Africa, when they came to the Detroit Zoo, in 1949 and 1950, respectively. The zoo’s curator of education, William Austin, gave a glimpse into Mike’s exciting life.
“[In 1956] news was made by Mike, one of the stars of the chimpanzee show. He had been retired and sold to a New York dealer, from whom he promptly escaped. The news of his escape and subsequent adventures, including an uninvited tour through a Manhattan bar, was spread coast to coast by the wire services. After his recapture, he was returned to Detroit and put back in the show to share top billing with Tarzan and Bobo. The Zoo continued to capitalize on his name through the remainder of the 1956 season.” (From The First Fifty Years: an informal history of the Detroit Zoological Park)
On October 31, 1956, the Detroit Zoo sent 9-year-old Mike and 7-year-old Bobo to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. The Air Force was using chimpanzees to test the effects of space flight. Some of the research was gruesome, spinning animals around in giant centrifuges, exposing them to powerful forces of gravity. Or they would put chimpanzees into decompression chambers, to see how long a chimpanzee can stay conscious.

Chico came to the Detroit Zoo in 1956, and Bobby and Sammy arrived in 1957. All three were infants captured in Africa. Per the usual zoo practice of ditching the chimps when they were still juveniles, the Detroit Zoo sold Bobby, Chico, and Sammy to “Tulane” on October 7, 1964. It is not clear which Tulane facility they were sent to. Earlier in the year, Dr. Keith Reemtsma, a surgeon at Tulane’s School of Medicine, was harvesting chimpanzee kidneys to transplant into humans. Reemtsma tried six kidney transplants from November 1963 to April 1964, all failures. After adverse public (and professional) reaction erupted after an attempted chimpanzee-human heart transplant, some transplant experimentation seemed to go underground. Or, Bobby, Chico, and Sammy could have been among the freshman class of chimpanzees used for research by the Tulane National Primate Research Center, which was just setting up in 1964. (Tulane did not respond to my request for information.) Either way, they spent their lives as research subjects.

From 1945 to 1982, the Detroit Zoo never kept many female chimpanzees around. In February and March 1976 it dumped four of them – Babs, Bitsy, Glenda, and Kelley – at the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP), where breeding programs kept females in a constant reproduction cycle. If they weren’t fertile, LEMSIP used them as in-house research subjects or supplied them (or their parts) to New York area scientists for transplantation and virus research.

Abby and Mia were both born in Africa in 1965. The zoo brought them both in specially to breed, not to entertain. In 1974, Abby had a little girl, Britannia. Two years later, for some reason, Detroit shipped Abby out. By the time she was 16 years old, still a young adult, she was in the bioinvasive research program in Bastrop, Texas, now named Michael E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research.
The zoo bought Mia in January 1983 to be a breeder, but her timing was unfortunate. That year, zoo director Steve Graham decided to shut down the great ape exhibit and build a new one, so he had to move the chimpanzees out. By August, just eight months after bringing Mia to her new home in Detroit, the zoo got rid of her by transferring her to the Primate Foundation of Arizona, a facility that ran a breeding operation to supply chimps to biomedical experiments. Mia died two years later, when she was about 20 years old.
To learn more about chimpanzees in research, I highly recommend The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, by Andrew Westoll. 

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