The Real Planet of the Apes (Documentary)

[FARMINGTON RIVER, LIBERIA] There’s an island in the middle of a river, in Liberia. Deep in the jungle of West Africa. That’s said to be home to over 60 chimpanzees, all infected with contagious diseases. They were released there years ago after being used for medical research. And now they roam wild. We’ve come to the Republic of Liberia to find out about the incredible story [MONROVIA LIBERIA] behind this place, the locals call Monkey Island. [DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
PRESENTS] [ISLAND OF THE APES] [MONROVIA, LIBERIA] Upon arriving in Liberia, one of the first things we noticed is that monkeys, apes, chimps, are everywhere. [KAJ LARSEN, MOTHERBOARD] We just saw this guy randomly on the side of the street. It’s a pet? Yes. My pet. And where did he come from? Lofa. And isn’t that where they had the ebola outbreak? Yeah, that is where the rumor is from. Oh, Ok, the rumor, I’m sorry. It’s only rumor. To get to Monkey Island we first had to drive 40 miles outside of Monrovia. To a small village on the edge of the Farmington River. From there we took a canoe to another village, where a guide could take us the rest of the way. [MARSHALL, LIBERIA] We just got to this little village and we’re trying to negotiate for a bigger boat. Which one’s yours? This one right here? It has an engine, right? Yes. And you can take us to Monkey Island? I know how to get there. I will take you. Fifty dollars? No. Fifty dollars is too low.
-No fifty US dollars? Eighty. Ok. Eighty. It’s a deal. So, apparently right now, we have to buy a bunch of fruit for the chimpanzees. Or else they get pissed off when you show up and you don’t throw food at them. Can I go on to Monkey Island? Can I walk on? No, you cannot. They will eat you if you do. What did you say? You said they’ll eat me? They will eat you! What! They will eat your raw! Young man be a fool. And if we weren’t already on edge about the apes, our guides themselves didn’t instill much confidence, as they forgot to untie the boat when we pushed off. Oh my god! The rope is pulling us over! It’s not gonna get over that shit. Oh no! Oh shit! This man is a brave man. All of you scared but this man is brave. We broke half the boat. Onward to Monkey Island. Are the locals who live in this area, are they scared of the chimps? [JERRY, MONKEY ISLAND SECURITY GUARD] Oh yes, if you are a strange person, okay, when you go there they become aggressive. But the only thing they, the chimps, they are afraid of water. They don’t swim across. They just walk at the water edge. Right, Ok. Alright, so we just pulled up to the island, we can hear the chimps. They’re making a lot of noise as we approach. Now there’s two of them that have come out of the bush. They are very afraid of you. They’re afraid? I’m afraid. Right then, a huge male charged out of the forest towards the boat. Back up, back up! So the big alpha male just started charging us and we like bailed to the back of the boat. The Liberian guys told us, don’t worry, they don’t swim, but right now, all I see is like three feet of shallow water between us and that angry chimp right there. They’re super aggressive, baring their teeth, when we first showed up. But now that we’ve got some food out, they’ve calmed down a lot. Jerry, who they know, is pretty comfortable, pretty fearless, actually. I wouldn’t go near that. And they don’t want me near them. This one, this one’s pissed at me. This one right here, at the base of the tree limb, is splashing us for some reason; I’m not sure what’s going on. The only way I can get these apes to come around, was to bribe them with sugar. They’re really amped about the lollipop. Even as a floated just a few feet from the apes, it was still hard to believe that this place actually existed. But as we were about to learn, what was even more astonishing, is the story behind why and how they got here. It all began here, just a few miles away at the Liberian Institute for Bio-Medical Research. A medical research program launched by the New York Blood Center one of the largest medical blood suppliers in the US. The program was called VILAB. It started in 1974, during the heyday of animal testing. This place is like the Disney Land of infectious disease. In the search for various treatments and vaccines over a hundred chimpanzees were infected with diseases such as hepatitis and River Blindness. Nobody knows more about the lab and its history than Betsy Brotman, the former head of the project. [BERKLEY HEIGHTS, NEW JERSEY] [BETSY BROTMAN, DIRECTOR, VILAB] When you first started the Via Lab what was, what was the intent and the purpose? Was looking for a place where [VILAB, 1987] they could have supply of chimpanzees that were not infected with hepatitis, and that could be used in hepatitis experiments. And then released into the forest. We did a lot of safety and efficacy testing of hepatitis B vaccines. Hepatitis B vaccines was developed just shortly, I guess shortly after we arrived there. Well, why Liberia, first of all? It seems like a crazy, far away place to do research. They had a large population of chimpanzees. And there was this defunct scientific institute, and it was near the airport. And the government agreed to let us work there. A lot of people had pet chimpanzees. And when they get past a certain age of around 5, they’re not really very good pets anymore. And that’s how we acquired our animals until we had enough breeding age animals that we didn’t need outside animals anymore. To get a better understanding about the scientific research going on at VILAB and how the apes ended up on the island, we spoke with Preston Marx, who was a virologist working at the institute. [DR PRESTON A MARX, VIROLOGIST] When I showed up in ’87, it was already a big program, and established something in the neighbor of 100 chimpanzees were there, maybe more. Why chimpanzees? Just from a virologist perspective, why is that…? They’re the only susceptible species to hepatitis, yeah. If we could use monkeys or mice, we would be using them. So it was a very special need. Once a chimpanzee would be hepatitis positive, then obviously you need naive animals, animals that have not been used in experiments. So they start releasing them onto these islands. The reason you can do that is, chimpanzees can’t swim. Their center of gravity is about here. You know, they’re got small butts and small legs, so they just sink, they can’t lay horizontally in the water the way a human being can. And we had, I think, six islands in all. One was a large island. Which we cut into three islands, we dug canals. That was a huge project, it really was huge. It was around this time the Betsy met her husband, Brian Garnum. Who came to work as an engineer at the compound, and whom she married in 1986. I loved my life in Liberia. I liked the animals, I liked the work, I liked the people I worked with. And, I thought it would be Ok, I don’t know. But it’s a difficult palce. [LIBERIA, 1989] In 1989 Liberia decended into the absolute chaos of the first of two violent civil wars. Your whole generation will perish. Rebel groups led by the, now infamous warlord, Charles Taylor, formed a particularly brutal uprising that included child soldiers cross-dressing cannibals and wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians. Amidst this madness, Betsy continued both her research, and the care of the chimp they had retired to the island. They came to shoot a chimp, I’d stand in front of the cage, like that. So Charles Taylor and the rebels were coming, what made you decide to stay? Well, we had about 100 chimpanzees. And they were in cages. And there were animals on islands; they all had to be fed. And we had a lot of employees, maybe 50, 60, and we thought that if we stayed there, we could keep the place together, and that the employees would remain unharmed. Ex-patriots were running away, Liberians were running away, and when we would go to the islands to feed the chimps, we would see bodies floating in the water. Sometimes women with babies tied to their back. And the people were dying, and they were starving to death, and little children. Sometimes I didn’t want to go outside becuase I knew there would be dead children outside. Because they had starved to death that night. As the war escalated, Betsy found herself more and more compelled to help the victims of the slaughter. There was a hotel about three miles from our house, and it was filled with 600 women and children, all from this village. And they had killed all the men and all the boys over 12. And, eventually, I got permission from Charles Taylor, cause I heard that their lives, these women that there was gonna be a massacre at teh hotel. I went up, I saw Charles Taylor, and I got permission to move them to a larger Ghanaian community that was protected by the Catholic Church in Buchanan. I mean, here you are, running like, a chimpanzee research facility but, in the middle of a civil war you’re saving hundreds Liberian women and children. That doesn’t sound crazy to you? No, I think we spent a lot of time doing those kinds of things more than… I mean, we went to work every day, but we got very involved in the community. Anybody would get very involved in the community. Betsy and the lab were able to remain unharmed until 1993, when the violence of the civil war made its way to her doorstep. The people opposed to Taylor were coming up the airport road Taylor’s people called, on the radio I guess, and said they were leaving. My husband and I knew we were all alone there. As the anti-Taylor forces swept through the area, they stormed into her home, and came after her husband, Brian. They just came in. And I think they thought that he had worked for Charles Taylor because we were the only ex-patriots that stayed behind. And they shot him, and he just died right away. I mean, just fell to the ground, dead. And I tried to make them shoot me, and they wouldn’t do it. Why did you stay in Liberia? After your husband was killed in front of you. I mean how do you just walk out with all those other people you? You run away? And leave the people and the chimps. And it just… I don’t know, I just… Betsy continued to work at the lab and made it through both the first and second civil war in Liberia. But as it turned out, it wasn’t the violence that closed the lab. But more the change of public opinion regarding animal testing with primates back home in America. [BREAKING BARRIERS, PETA, 1986] It was anti-testing videos like this one of other, much harsher facilities that turned the tide against the practice. By the late ’90s, when chimpanzees were proven to be a poor model for HIV and AIDS research, the NIH placed a moratorium on breeding research chimps. Making the case that most chimp testing was more cruel than effective. Although opinions differ on the ethics of animal testing, the research that Betsy oversaw led to life saving vaccines for hepatitis B as well as screening method for hepatitis C. Two diseases that, combined, affect millions of people worldwide. Regardless of these exceptions, Federal grants given for chimp based research began to decline significantly. In 2005, the research had run its course. -Yes.
-There was pressure from animal rights activists. So, it’s almost like you survived the war, but you couldn’t survive the pressure from animal rights activists. Isn’t there an irony there? I think they were right I don’t really… Chimpanzees shouldn’t be used in experiments. I really do feel this way. There are certain instances where it would be very difficult to do the research without chimpanzees, unless you use humans. If you’re going to do work in chimpanzees, you should set up a system so that at the end of the research they have a place where they can be retired to. And that they can live a nice chimp life to the best of whatever’s available. And that’s exactly what Monkey Island is. And it’s not just the island security guard throwing lollipops at the chimps. Since the facility was closed in 2005, the new York Blood Center has continued to care for and feed the chimps with a core Liberian support staff. The idea was, get all the animals on to islands, which we did do. And train the Liberians to run the operation themselves. And that was what we agreed upon doing, and we did it. Although the caretakers wish to have their identities hidden for security reasons, they did agree to take us back to the island, and show us how the apes were really cared for. I mean, it’s very exciting to go to the island. And the way the animals interact with the caretakers. Their caretakers used to work with the animals at the lab. And they have a good medical background. And they observe the chimps, they go every other day, they make sure all the animals report. And you saw the place, it looks pretty good, doesn’t it? -It does.
-I mean, it’s fantastic. This was a very different experience from my initial visit. This time it was clear that the chimps were very familiar with the caretakers, and trusted them completely. How old are some of the chimps? They’re in their 30s, some of them. I can that like, you kind of love these chimpanzees. I really, yes, I like them very much. You hear so much lore, so much mythology, about this place that to actually get here, to hear the real story behind the research facility and what it went through during the civil war conflict. And then to meet the guys who come out here every day and feed the chimpanzees it’s pretty extraordinary, actually. And as for the chimps themselves, although they were infected with diseases like hepatitis when they were originally retired here, many, if not all, have since fully recovered. So, while animal testing continues to be a controversial subject, where many of the animals are simply put to death after their usefulness, at least the chimps of Monkey Island have a sanctuary all their own. [A MOTHERBOARD PRODUCTION] [PRESENTED BY


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