Stories of Chimpanzees

Stories of Chimpanzees

Ch. 353*: True colors

Yoko's Story

Born around 1974, Yoko spent his early years with a circus before being sent to the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP) in 1981. Yoko was used extensively in research, and was eventually infected with both HIV and hepatitis C. Today, he tests negative for both viruses.

From 1984 to 1991, Yoko endured at least one punch liver biopsy per month, over 140 liver biopsies in 16 years at the lab, along with many more invasive procedures before his release in 1997. In a study to test a nasal spray, he was knocked down every two days for two months. He had a fever every day of this study, but was never given an aspirin, since it might interfere with the results. After being infected with HIV in 1995, Yoko underwent another 3 lymph node biopsies but no longer participated in any studies.

In 1997, Yoko moved to sanctuary at Fauna Foundation where he enjoys a social group, compassionate caregivers, the outdoors, and his favorite foods. Yoko makes elaborate night nests, often with nearly 18 sheets in them. Tucked into the sheets of his nest are Yoko’s “treasures”—full juice boxes, unopened applesauce, bananas, etc. As Gloria Grow of Fauna has said, his nests are “a luxury he certainly never had hanging in a steel cage, on a rubber tire with absolutely nothing to do or anything to make a bed with.”

Yoko has become more social since arriving at Fauna. He can often be found in the sun in a grooming circle of chimpanzee friends. He is a fast runner and enjoys playing chase with other chimpanzees or “hit and run” games with the girls, though unfortunately sometimes upsetting them a bit. Yoko is fast learning to trust both humans and his fellow chimpanzees.

When Nancy Megna worked the night shift at the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP), she greeted each of the chimpanzees, including Yoko. But, unlike most of the other chimpanzees who were hungry for attention, Yoko would never come down from his tire bed, no matter how hard Nancy tried to get his attention and trust. He would look away and appear disinterested. Under Yoko’s cool demeanor, Nancy detected a broken spirit and vulnerability. After months of Nancy greeting Yoko with little to no response, he suddenly offered her his toes to be tickled in a slight gesture of friendship and fragile trust. He would pull his toes away and then present them again, all the while trying to appear unaffected. Every so often Yoko would steal a look, making eye contact with Nancy, and she could almost detect a constrained smile beginning to form. For Nancy, that was enough to have hope.

At LEMSIP, Yoko seemed to have lost all hope. He lived alone in a 5′x5′x7′ cage that was suspended from the ceiling in a building with nine similarly suspended cages of singly housed chimpanzees and no natural light. Yoko compulsively pulled the hairs out of his arms, and ignored most humans, like Nancy, who came near him.

In 1997, Gloria Grow of Fauna Foundation met Yoko at LEMSIP, and said that:

Yoko made you feel as though you had no business being there, staring at him. Yet he looked as though he wanted to interact but was simply refusing, not giving or showing any emotion at all, holding onto his dignity and pride. It was heartbreaking to see the look of resignation he had in his eyes.

At sanctuary, Yoko changed. He worked hard to find a place in his new life with a few chosen human friends and his chimpanzee group.

He showed signs all of the time that he desperately wanted to be friendly. One day when Nancy visited Fauna, Yoko’s emotions seemed to get the best of him. Nancy had not seen the LEMSIP chimpanzees in four years. She missed them dearly. She greeted the younger chimpanzees with joy and happiness for their new life. Nancy did not expect the older ones, like Yoko, to remember her. But she was wrong.

Yoko spotted Nancy and ran towards her in his outdoor enclosure. Fauna personnel were watchful. But there was no aggression in his romp. Rather, he was happy and excited, and looked at Nancy with unmistakable recognition. Yoko ran right up to Nancy and turned his back to be groomed, a chimpanzee gesture of friendship, trust, and love. Nancy described the moment:

I reached through the enclosure and cried and apologized for all that had happened to him. I rubbed his back and told him how wonderful he looked. I was thrilled and honored that he and the others remembered me. After a few minutes, he couldn’t resist getting involved in a game of tickle and chase with “the guys.” As he ran off to chase Pablo, I cried more tears of sheer joy and hope.

According to Gloria, who witnessed this emotional reunion:

Clearly, for all those nights in the lab that Yoko [seemingly] ignored Nancy, he still must have felt she was someone who cared; he simply couldn’t allow himself to show it. It proved to all of us how important one person could be to another. You don’t always know or even get to see how important you are in someone’s life. The people who care are the people who make the difference.

In sanctuary, Yoko was now in a place where he was safe to reveal his feelings of friendship and vulnerability. He let Nancy know that he had in fact noticed her kindness and compassion towards him in the lab all those years ago, and that for him, it really did matter.

Yoko ultimately passed away from liver disease, surrounded by chimpanzee and human friends and loved ones.


Yoko’s story is based on information supplied by Fauna Foundation

Fauna Foundation’s Newsletters, including articles: Gloria Grow, Yoko (Spring 2004)

Fauna Foundation Brochure, They Tattoo Their Victims, They Perform Horrific Experiments, Sound Familiar?, Case Histories

NEAVS Brochure, From Stage to Lab Cage, 2002

* Chimpanzees in laboratories are assigned a unique number beginning with “Ch.” Where it is known, NEAVS supplies this number in these stories.

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  • Research: {categories limit="1"}{category_name}: {/categories}HIV/AIDS Debacle
  • Research: {categories limit="1"}{category_name}: {/categories}Hepatitis Detour