The Fauna Foundation sanctuary in Canada lost a dear friend last week. J.B. and I knew Tom well from our time at Fauna and our hearts go out to everyone at the sanctuary. We know how big of a loss this is for the humans and the other chimpanzees. It is the most difficult part of the work that we do.
Tom began his life in Africa. He was taken from his home and separated from his family to be shipped to the United States for use in biomedical research. He spent 30 years in laboratories, including some time at Buckshire. He underwent over 50 liver biopsies. He was injected with HIV. He was considered uncooperative in the laboratory, having to be anesthesized even to be shifted from one small cage to another. When the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP) was closing, the chimpanzees were slated to move to the notorious Coulston Foundation, a private laboratory in New Mexico. The head veterinarian at LEMSIP decided to place as many chimpanzees in sanctuary as he could, and individuals were scattered across North America to every sanctuary that had space. The Fauna Foundation scrambled to complete a building and fifteen LEMSIP chimpanzees arrived in 1997. Neither the humans nor the chimpanzees truly knew what was in store for them and how their lives would transform over the next decade.
Tom experienced a lot of new things at Fauna: hot tea (it had to be a certain brand for Tommy to drink it), painting (he created some amazing pieces of art), oatmeal (a favorite dinner), an obsessive love of green peppers (he liked them best when accompanied by crackers), the ability to identify a perfectly ripe mango (he would reject those that were too under or overripe, but LOVED mangoes in their perfect state); and, most of all, a human best friend: Pat Ring. Pat was the cattle rancher who had sold his farm to Fauna. He was an unlikely person to be smitten by a chimpanzee, but Tom looked at Pat with a level of admiration and affection that dissolved any species barrier between the two. Tom’s death was sudden, probably a heart attack, and his best friend Pat was by his side at the end.
Since learning of Tom’s death, I have been remembering Tom playing with Pablo. Tom had difficulty socializing with other chimpanzees. He had lived in isolation for so long that he hadn’t developed the social skills necessary to live harmoniously in a group. But he loved the other male chimpanzees at Fauna, and Gloria would frequently group Tom with Pablo and Yoko for short periods of time. Pablo was not fond of most humans and had a tough-guy demeanor, but when he played with Tommy, he was a different person. These two large chimpanzee guys would follow each other in slow games of chase, grabbing each other’s feet and laughing that breathy chimpanzee laugh. Yoko, a small and much more energetic chimpanzee, would follow behind, practically tripping over himself, trying to increase the pace. Watching this train of happy, playful old chimpanzees traipsing through the sanctuary really brought home to me what a sanctuary is all about. Pablo was the first chimpanzee who died at Fauna. His death was described in Joseph D’Agnese’s Discover magazine article that caused Keith to begin Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest. Pablo’s time in sanctuary was far too brief, but I will now forever remember Pablo and Tom laughing and playing together.
Tom was immortalized through Alison Argo’s documentary “An Unnatural History” and became the ambassador for Project R&R, a program of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society aimed at ending the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research. The documentary ends with Tom climbing a tall tree on a newly created island at Fauna. There are no words more fitting to remember Tom than those Alison spoke during that scene:
…We can’t undo the past – but we can reconsider the future and the cost to the chimpanzee. Thousands like Tom have sacrificed everything so that we might live a little longer or laugh a little louder…
Far from the forests of equatorial Africa, this old chimp can finally survey the strange landscape that has become his home. At last his trials have come to an end – but his story will live on: a reminder of the thousands like him, who are still waiting for a second chance.