Stories of Chimpanzees

Stories of Chimpanzees

Ch. 170*: 50+ years in a lab...still counting

Wenka's story

Wenka (Lab ID #170) was born in the first dedicated chimpanzee lab in Orange Park, Florida, the predecessor to Yerkes in Atlanta, Georgia, on May 21, 1954. On the very day of her birth, she was taken from her mother to a dark room, where she was cared for by humans while participating in a nystagmus and fixation vision study until October 1955, when she was 17 months old.

Her human family

In late 1955, Wenka was sold as a "pet" to a human family in North Carolina to be raised. At age 3, Wenka was permanently returned to Yerkes on April 19, 1957, when she became too big for the family to handle. It was unusual for her to have survived that trauma since many cross-reared infants die when they are removed from their human families.

An elder now, Wenka is the oldest known chimpanzee in a U.S. lab. She is reportedly being used in aging and cognitive studies at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, where she has been through a gamut of research. She has also been used to breed chimpanzees for research and has had all of her babies taken from her. Through the years, she has had myriad cage-mate friends or family who were eventually taken from her. She also has spent much time alone.

[Wenka] was old and grateful for the small kindnesses, like good fruit and sunshine. … It would be nice if she could be retired and live out her days quietly with other older chimps, enjoying good food, soft bedding, and warm sunshine.

        —A former Yerkes lab worker

Wenka was born in a laboratory in 1954. The 1950s—a decade characterized by President Eisenhower, Elvis Presley, the birth of the Baby Boom generation, the introduction of the polio vaccine, and James Dean—are long gone. We all live in a very different world now. But not Wenka. Over five decades later, she is still in a lab—specifically the Yerkes National Primate Research Center (Yerkes), and may still be used for research that includes alcohol, oral contraceptive, aging, or cognitive studies.

Wenka's family tree

Wenka’s parents were Web and Banka. Web was born in the Orange Park lab on January 16, 1943, to Wendy and Bokar (Wenka’s paternal grandparents). Wendy, her grandmother, was one of the first of four chimpanzees bought by Robert Yerkes from an animal dealer in Africa. She died of a stroke in 1971. Bokar came from Africa in 1930, fathered 40 offspring, and died during an experiment in 1960.

Banka was born in the Orange Park lab on January 28, 1941, and died when she was mistakenly poisoned on September 25, 1956. Banka’s parents (Wenka’s maternal grandparents) were Bimba and Frank. Bimba came from Africa in 1930 and died from dysentery on December 13, 1944. Frank was purchased from a laboratory at Johns Hopkins in 1933. He was used in a morphine addiction experiment and died on November 22, 1946

Baby Jama

Wenka gave birth six times between 1966 and 1977. On July 6, 1968, when Wenka was 15, she gave birth to Jama, who was the first chimpanzee known to be born with Down Syndrome. A 1969 Yerkes newsletter noted:

Wenka and Franz will be encouraged to mate again in an attempt to produce another mongoloid offspring. An even greater tour de force would be the breeding of Jama herself and the rearing of a dynasty of mongoloid chimps for scientific research.

Baby Jama was never bred as she died at 17 months old during an operation to try to fix a heart problem. Wenka and Franz had more children together, including a son, Ford, on August 10, 1974, and a daughter, Pamela, on February 19, 1977. None of them had Down Syndrome.

Today, still in a lab

According to one lab caregiver, Wenka has “spent plenty of time rocking in the back corner of her cage,” (an abnormal behavior associated with the stress of laboratory institutionalization).

Some lab caregivers have described Wenka as having a “1000 mile stare,” saying that her dissociation makes it difficult to reach her after all these years in a lab. A former Yerkes lab worker recalled:

Wenka was the reason I stayed at Yerkes for more years than I should have. I love her like no one else. I found her a little bit—meaning I found her personality, her spirit—on some days anyway…

Yet on rare occasions, Wenka has connected and shown a spark of life in her eyes as well as a spirit deep down—a spirit that has the right to be expressed and nurtured in sanctuary.

After more than five decades and with few remaining years left, Wenka deserves to spend the rest of her days in the relative comfort of sanctuary. Project R&R is working to secure Wenka’s release along with the release of the other elder chimpanzees who are still held in labs around the country. We have made a promise to Wenka and all the others—a promise we mean to keep.


Dr. Lori Gruen, professor of philosophy at Wesleyan University

Personal accounts from anonymous former primate lab caregivers.

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