S2 E7: Dr. Andrew Halloran: Ending the Nightmare for Chimpanzees

Dr. Andrew Halloran is the director of chimpanzee care at Save the Chimps in Fort Pierce, Florida. Andrew has spent the past 20 years working to improve and save the lives of chimpanzees, not only chimps in captivity here in the U.S. with, but chimps in the wild as well in Sierra Leone. He has truly dedicated his life to these apes, and he's got incredible stories, a wealth of knowledge and a huge heart.

20 years ago, Andrew was right out of college, living in New York City in a little apartment with a bunch of roommates, working at a bookstore, not really knowing what he was going to do with his life.

He’d had a life long fascination with apes, but never thought it was something he'd end up doing until one night when there was an AOL chat room, which was a thing in the 90s  - where you could write in and talk to Koko the gorilla. Koko was the famous gorilla that spoke sign language. People would write in and Koko’s interpreter would respond with whatever Koko had signed. The responses were somewhat inane and nonsensical, but Koko’s caretaker would then link them to something else and explain why that answer made sense. Except to Andrew it didn't make sense. He thought why are we trying to teach apes how to be more human instead of getting a better understanding of apes?

Right then and there he decided that's it. He knew what he wanted to do and shortly after the Koko debacle, he moved to Florida, started a Masters program and got a job at an animal park working with chimpanzees. Eventually, he earned his PhD, became a primatologist, and spent 10 years at that animal park before moving on to academia as well as a decade long project in Sierra Leone, focused on chimps in the wild and the loss of habitat.

He’s been at Save the Chimps for the past few years. It’s an incredible sanctuary, founded by Dr. Carol Noon in 1997.  At the time, our space program was still using chimps for research and in '97 they decided they were going to finally retire the chimps and gave them to a lab in New Mexico, called the Coulston Foundation; which had more animal welfare violations than any lab in the country and was a living hell for animals.

Dr. Noon sued the Air Force on behalf of the chimpanzees and got permanent custody of the 21 chimps, she saved them from Coulston and Save the Chimps was born. A few years later, when the Coulston Foundation was on the verge of bankruptcy, they offered to sell their laboratory lands and their buildings to Save the Chimps and they donated their remaining 266 chimpanzees as well. Save the Chimps then built the 200-acre sanctuary in Fort Pierce.  

The chimps live on 12 large (2 to 3 acres) islands with each island housing around 20 chimps. All of the chimps that live at Save the Chimps came from laboratory research, the pet trade, the entertainment industry and the original space chimps. Most spent years or decades living in horrific conditions, in confined metal cages. Many of them never saw other chimps, and were tested on for decades. There are a few cages on display on the property, they are set up so that people can see where these chimps came from. They look like exactly what they are - tiny metal prison cells.

In 2015, the U.S. department official wildlife made chimps endangered which meant that the NIH would no longer fund research done on chimpanzees; which shut down all the biomedical research, but because of lack of sanctuary space and just overall slowness with how all of this works, there's still 700 chimps sitting in labs just languishing. They are waiting for homes or waiting to be moved or at least, that’s the hope.

The other chimpanzees at Save the Chimps come from either the entertainment industry or the pet trade and in both cases, the chimps are purchased from pet dealers when they're babies. They're two or three months old, and they're tiny and they're adorable. But as soon as the chimps turn four or five years old, they are too much for the owner to handle. They get big, and can be aggressive and destructive - because they are chimps, not humans.  Sadly, many of them don't end up in incredible places like Save the Chimps. They end up in terrible places like road side zoos, breeder facilities, and metal cages.

I went down to Save the Chimps and spent the afternoon with Andrew.  It was magical. To see these chimps who had gone from living in isolation in tiny horrible metal cages to now living in communities on these islands, in nature and having friends and families and communities to share their days with was absolutely incredible. Andrew is a wealth of information and knowledge and wisdom and every single chimp here and in the wild is lucky to have this man on their side.