Tom Ch. 411*: An ambassador
It was absolutely disgusting to me to see a chimpanzee of Tom’s size living in a cage where he could not possibly stretch out his arms or climb higher than two feet up… This was his home, his playground, and his kitchen… a 5′x5′x7′ cage. To think that Tom had lived like this for over 25 years…just breaks your heart. Seeing the way animals in laboratories are forced to live, and the needless suffering endured—the indignities, the loss of identity—is unbearable.
—Gloria Grow, Fauna
Senior, stately, a pillar of Fauna Foundation, and Project R&R’s chosen Ambassador for all chimpanzees still languishing in labs, Tom will never be forgotten. He earned the respect, admiration and love of all who met him. He has been a figurehead for Project R&R’s outreach, his poignant photograph appearing in educational ads, his handsome face adorning pins worn proudly by advocates of efforts to end chimpanzee research. And in the PBS’s award-winning documentary, Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History, we watched as Tom, released for the first time on the Fauna Sanctuary islands, ran towards and climbed up the tallest point of the tallest tree—instinctively and, perhaps, in fulfillment of a yearning he held for some 30 years locked in a lab. From that place of as much freedom as he would ever know, Tom looked over his domain for the first time. And he and we delighted in it.
His caregivers describe Tom as a gentle giant, like a dear, old, wise uncle. He earned respect, in that alpha way where it just came to him because of who he was. He cared deeply for others, taking on a role within his chimpanzee family as someone indispensable, upon whom others relied to feel safe and secure. He tended to the wounds of other chimpanzees, fed himself only the “right” foods for how he was feeling a particular day, and could have easily been called Dr. Tom. He chose his friends wisely and carefully and joined in a profound relationship with Pat Ring, his human best friend. The two became brothers, father and son, and soul mates. As Tom watched over his family, every night and every morning, it was his calls that would be heard first, followed by others in their turn.
And then, one night, there was no call. And no one responded to the night’s silence. The chimp house was quiet with the emptiness that comes when a great presence is gone. That night, when no one called, the sad reality that Tom had died that day, December 10, 2009, became the harsh and undeniable truth that all of us who knew and loved him would now have to make peace with.
Tom inspired and taught everyone who was touched by him. As Project R&R’s Ambassador, he has been and will remain the face and heart for our Great Ape Protection Act campaign. He has and will continue to be a part of this great effort to get all chimpanzees in all laboratories to the safety and comfort of sanctuary.
We say goodbye to Tom and pledge that he will be with us when we succeed, the Great Ape Protection Act is passed, and others, just like Tom, will at last have their moment. And they and we will delight in it once again.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Born in Africa, Tom was ripped from his family and spent 30 years in labs where he was infected with HIV. He endured over 369 knockdowns, 56 punch liver biopsies, one open liver wedge biopsy, and three lymph node and three bone marrow biopsies. In the lab, Tom was plagued by intestinal parasites, and often had diarrhea and no appetite. When he had strength, he banged constantly on his cage. Tom was rescued by Fauna Foundation in 1997.
Tom painting himself “normal”
Unlike most chimpanzees whose feet are dark or black, Tom had a pink, scarred foot as a result of an injury. Tom was always fully aware of this difference between him and other chimpanzees.
One afternoon, Tom, who enjoyed opportunities to paint, refused his usual choices of colorful paints, brushes and canvas and instead insisted on having a jar of black paint. Tom dipped his fingers into the jar and methodically applied the black paint to his pink foot, working slowly and carefully to cover every trace of pink. He stopped, only when he had successfully returned his foot to a “normal” chimpanzee color.
His caregiver at Fauna Foundation described her emotions at witnessing this:
I couldn’t help but feel the tears well up in my eyes. As they rolled down my cheeks, I thought how this man in front of me must feel incredibly self-conscious about his pink foot and how difficult it must be for him to look so different from the others. I was also crying at the thought that this too is something we share with chimpanzees: an acute awareness of what it means …to look different….
For months after this, Tom periodically painted his pink foot with black paint.
Tom’s story is based on information supplied by Fauna Foundation.
Arryn Ketter, “Something Different About Tom”, Fauna Foundation Newsletter (Sept. 2001)
Fauna Foundation Brochure, They Tattoo Their Victims, They Perform Horrific Experiments, Sound Familiar?, Case Histories
*Chimpanzees in laboratories are assigned a unique number beginning with “Ch.” Where it is known, NEAVS supplies this number in these stories.