Billy Jo (Photo: © Fauna Foundation)
The chimpanzee who won everyone’s heart
Feb. 14, 2006 – Chambly, Quebec – Billy Jo, a chimpanzee who endured hundreds of procedures in a research lab before finally being rescued into sanctuary, died suddenly at the age of 37 after only eight years at the Fauna Foundation sanctuary. An autopsy showed he died of a heart attack.
Project R&R spoke with Fauna Foundation founder/director Gloria Grow to learn more about why so many sanctuary visitors were taken with Billy and what he taught the Fauna staff during his all-too-brief years there.
Billy Jo (Photo: © Fauna Foundation)
For a whole lot of them, there’s not much time left…we can’t dilly-dally around. They need to get out of labs now. Before it is too late.
–Gloria Grow, Fauna Foundation
R&R: What about Billy Jo was so special?
Grow: Billy was just this incredibly charismatic, memorable being. You meet people in your life that are so magnetic that you never forget them. Billy was that kind of chimpanzee. He had a way of making people fall in love with him. Some visitors would come to Fauna seeking out another special chimp they were draw to from photos on our website. Then they would meet Billy and go away smitten. Maybe it’s because he was this amazing contradiction—a majestic, incredibly powerful male who could instantly become intuitive, compassionate, and kind and interact with some humans and chimpanzees in the gentlest ways.
Occasionally, we would have a special visitor and Billy would be displaying—all angry and loud, throwing things around—but then when they came near he would plunk down and manage to mesmerize them as if it were on cue.
R&R: What strikes you most about Billy’s death?
Grow: More than anything, it illustrates the urgency needed to get these chimpanzees out of labs now. We can’t dilly dally around. For a whole lot of them—chimps who are 30, 40, and even 50 years old—there’s not much time left. In fact, there might not even be much time left for someone only 20 years old! Their bodies have just been through too much.
Billy Jo with Dr. Jane Goodall (Photo: © Fauna Foundation)
R&R: Was his death particularly surprising?
Grow: It was devastating, but at this point, having lost four fairly young chimps, I’ve come to realize that every day is precious. To watch them come out of research, to watch them go through the recovery…on the outside they look so much better…but there’s no way you can put the insides of their bodies back together…they’ve been destroyed. You can bring someone back to some degree, but there’s a limit to how much you can do.
Sometimes at Fauna we fall into the trap of thinking we’ve ‘fixed them.’ We see such tremendous transformations in their attitude and self-expression when they finally have a chance to get out of a cage and look up at the sky and breathe the fresh air. They so enjoy their new chimpanzee families. On the outside, they seem so much healthier that we get lulled into thinking that they are OK. It’s easy to forget the extent to which their insides have been violated—again, and again, and again. We cannot undo the damage that’s been done to their organs, their systems, and the impact of all that stress.
R&R: What do you know about procedures done to Billy Jo?
Grow: We have Billy Jo’s full records from Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP). He had a horrifying number of procedures done to him over the course of 14 years—including nearly 300 ‘knockdowns‘ to anesthetize him. This is a very traumatic procedure for chimps because they are often surrounded by lab employees trying to shoot them down with a dart gun filled with anesthetic.
Sometimes, chimpanzees like Billy are cooperative in the beginning. Billy was simply walked into the cage by the person who brought him to the lab. Some chimpanzees who have been raised by humans are more comfortable with humans than with their own kind—but then, in many cases, lab notes show that they became increasingly uncooperative, difficult and angry. Big surprise. Ironically, an easy going personality like Billy unfortunately made him a choice candidate for the frequent procedures of some of the worst research.
R&R: Why do you say that?
Grow: That’s typically how it goes. Researchers know that chimpanzees raised by or accustomed to humans are more likely to be more cooperative on the more invasive types of long-term research. From a research standpoint, the more the chimpanzee will do for you, the more you can do to them. You have a being who may have been raised in a human family, raised to believe he or she was human, but when their chimpanzee bodies become too strong to handle are suddenly stuck in a 5′x5′x7′ cage trying to cope with needles, dart guns, and pain.
R&R: What was Billy’s history?
Grow: Billy was born sometime in 1968. His first fifteen years were spent living in New York state entertaining people with his companion Sue Ellen. We know that at age 10—long past a point where most male chimpanzees can be handled safely [an adult is eight times as strong as a human male] Billy’s caretakers took him fishing and on car rides. When his owner could no longer afford him and Susie, they were sent to LEMSIP, the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates.
I get so mad when I think about this incredible, majestic force of nature confined to that windowless cage. There, they trashed his body. He was repeatedly ‘challenged’ with various strains of HIV and hepatitis. He was meant to die. They used him and used him, pushed and pushed until he lost his identity. How could he treat people with any respect? He would shake in his 5′x5′x7′ cage trying desperately to prevent anyone from approaching.
R&R: How was his transition to the Fauna Sanctuary?
Grow: After being betrayed by humans in both the entertainment world and in the research laboratory, he was somehow able to let himself love again…let himself give again to humans. He was somehow able to use his power to surpass all that had been done to him. He became someone we relied on. With new people, he would have his guard up, but he always seemed to have a second sense about people he could trust. He had this ability to sense people’s pain. Was that because of all the pain he had been through? I’m not sure.
R&R: What was it like for Billy with other chimpanzees?
Grow: Although he had more experience with humans, he took very quickly to his chimpanzee family. Still, his ability to be with other chimps was one other thing in him that was damaged by his past. His relationships with his own kind were always fragile. It was as if he didn’t know if he was a human or a chimpanzee—one of the great tragedies of his life. When he was with a human he loved to laugh and his joy for life was truly infectious. He could spend hours playing chase, tickling, or grooming us. Or he would relax basking alone in the sun. It was all amazing to watch. I take some peace in knowing that he had those happy years with us. I only wish it could have been much longer.
R&R: Any final thoughts?
Grow: I want to emphasize that Billy’s story is not atypical. In fact, some of our chimps—Tom, for example—have endured even more and worse research procedures. But people will remember Billy—this incredibly proud and wonderful being who spent 14 years trapped in pain and fear.
Billy Jo (Photo: © Fauna Foundation)
Billy was betrayed three times really. First, by those who used him for entertainment. Then by the researchers. And then in the end by the science that deprived him for the third time by cutting short his life after taxing his body so unjustly. His story has to be told to help all the others. We need to work as hard as we can to get them out NOW. They can’t wait. Even if some of these chimpanzees enjoy only a one week, one year reprieve, we need to work for it.
We owe them that much.