My Time with the Chimps: Pepper

In the early years, Gloria invited some of the lab technicians who used to work with the chimpanzees to visit Fauna. Although these visits were ostensibly for the good of the chimpanzees—some of them had built genuine friendships with the techs—Gloria had an ulterior motive for them. She wanted to know the truth about life inside biomedical laboratories, the truth the researchers and companies don’t want the public to hear. And she quickly discovered that when lab workers are off the clock and experiencing extreme emotions, they often felt like sharing.

“When people come here, they tell me stuff,” she says. “Horrible stuff. Chimps with no fingers left because they’ve chewed them all off. Chimps with concussions from hitting the ground after being darted. Chimps who have such horrible wake-ups from anesthesia that they nearly kill themselves as they thrash around their room. Did you know the only time the chimps were allowed pain medication was after they’d had their vasectomies? They weren’t even allowed a Tylenol, because it would interfere with the science.”

Gloria collects these stories obsessively. They are crucial pieces of ammunition when it comes to swaying public opinion and getting the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act passed into law. But she also collects these gruesome tales because she is terrified that no one else will.

“Over the last twelve years, I’ve realized you can’t force people who worked in the lab to speak out publicly,” she says. “You can’t. Because they live in purgatory, in their own little hell. Most of them will never be able to deal with what they saw, what they did, what they were a part of – the crimes they committed against the chimps.”

One lab tech who visited Fauna had to leave the chimphouse after only five minutes. He could barely speak when he saw the animals he used to fear, the animals he used to pump full of darts, enjoying their retirement. Later that night, after a few beers, he finally opened up. He told Gloria about witnessing Pablo take five darts in his body – he never said so, but Gloria suspects this lab tech was the shooter. Then he shared another memory, the one that had driven him from the chimphouse earlier that day: He was moving a female chimp between cages, but the chimp was rattling them so hard that the link between them started coming apart. With only seconds to act before the chimp would be free, the panicking lab tech grabbed the only thing at his disposal – a fire extinguisher – and proceeded to bash the chimpanzee’s fingers to a pulp.

“A lot of caregivers and lab techs have terrible psychological problems afterwards,” says Gloria. “They suffer from PTSD as much as the chimps do. They witness violent acts against chimpanzees every single day and they suffer terribly for it. So when we talk about ending chimp research, it’s not just for the chimps’ sakes. We need to end it for the sake of the humans, too.”

In an idyllic setting like Fauna—with fresh food, interesting things to do, and ample room to socialize—the chimps are transformed. The lab techs who visited often had trouble recognizing the apes because they’d put on so much healthy weight and re-grown so much hair. And sometimes, like when a LEMSIP technician named Dave came to visit one day, the visitors experienced something even more unexpected.

“I took Dave into the back to see Sue Ellen and Donna Rae,” says Gloria. “Pepper was way up on one of the tree structures, but when she saw Dave, she came down in a flash. I never saw anything move so fast in my life.” Pepper came running up to the cage door on two feet, her arms in the air, her body pressed to the bars. Then she pushed her face into the bars as hard as she could and smooshed her lips through the caging. “I looked at Dave, he looked at me, I looked at Pep, and I just told him, ‘She wants to kiss you.’ And Dave started shaking, and he said, ‘No, she doesn’t. She hates me.’ But Pepper wouldn’t leave, and she was quivering, too, in that whole body quiver.”

Eventually, Gloria convinced Dave to approach Pepper. “If he was going to ever pee his pants,” says Gloria, “this would have been the time.” Dave bent over and slowly touched his lips to Pepper’s. The next thing he knew, Pepper was zooming back up to the top of her tree, and Dave had collapsed into a fit of sobbing.

“I told him he must have done something. He must have been important to her. There must have been something between them. And he said, ‘How? I just worked there.’ But then he told me he always loved Pepper. He always thought she was so intelligent, how she worked the system, how she made it work for her. That’s the beautiful thing about Pepper. She is so smart, so cooperative. Chimps can tell,” says Gloria. “Pepper knew that Dave was a good person. If Dave loved Pepper, she will have loved him back.”

Dave was obviously deeply conflicted by what he’d seen and done to chimps at LEMSIP; as Judith Herman writes, “Witnesses as well as victims are subject to the dialectic of trauma.” And while no one can know exactly what Dave was hoping or expecting to find when he came for that visit, I think it’s fair to assume the one thing he wasn’t expecting was to receive a kiss from one of the chimpanzees.

To speculate on what that gesture meant to Pepper is difficult; this is something better left to Gloria, or her sister Dawna, both of whom know Pep so well. But it’s pretty clear what that kiss meant for Dave. Even though he felt he didn’t deserve it, in Dave’s mind, Pepper had given him a small measure of forgiveness.

This post is part of a series called "My Time with the Chimps," which appears simultaneously on The Walrus Blog. For an introduction to the series, click here. To read more about my new book, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, click here.

(photo: "Pepper" by Frank Noelker)