My time with Jerom
Rachel’s account of her experiences working at Yerkes National Primate Research Center (Yerkes) and caring for Jerom, a chimpanzee infected with HIV, is provided here in condensed form from: Rachel I. Weiss, Jerom, © 2001, 1997 unpublished work.
The senior veterinarian drew two large vials of blood from Jerom and put them into Nathan’s left arm. I was horrified and I tried to walk away from the scene, but I kept coming back to watch. I fantasized about tackling the vet as she worked over Nathan. I didn’t.
… Nate and I became pals. He always laughed and grinned and always sweetly held my hand. When Nathan came up from the anesthetic after being given Jerom’s [HIV-infected] blood, he never treated me the same. The first noticeable changes in his personality were an increased irritability, and a peculiar habit of sucking in his cheeks and biting on his lips nervously - he began to do this constantly. He also stopped holding my hand: instead he tried to crush my fingers.
Chimpanzees are distinct individuals with unique personalities. As fellow Great Apes, they have innate rights upon which we are trespassing when we take possession of their bodies and use them for experiments….— Rachel I. Weiss
After I graduated from college in 1994, I got a job as a Primate Care Technician at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center, at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. I was very proud to be going to such a prestigious institution, and excited to make a contribution to science while studying and caring for nonhuman primates at the same time.
Yerkes’ Main Center is located not more than a few miles from downtown Atlanta. The compound is fairly small, and well hidden from the rest of Emory’s campus; it houses well over 2000 monkeys and apes. Yerkes looks secretive, and I eventually learned that secret things happen there.
After two or three weeks on the job, I requested to be ‘cleared’ to work in the HIV/SIV-infected primate areas, which included two buildings full of monkeys (RA and Virology) and a building of 13 HIV infected chimpanzees (CID - Chimpanzee Infectious Disease). I felt that previous involvement with humans with AIDS made me empathetic to the plight of the rhesus and pigtailed macaques involved in the AIDS Project. I knew the characteristics of many of the opportunistic diseases humans and simians with AIDS are prone to, and I also knew about the importance and effects of psychological health on the physical health.
Chimpanzee infectious disease
During my first year on the AIDS Project, the rumor was that the chimps in CID were never going to get ill. It was well known that the study had been abandoned years before, and the chimps all but forgotten about. My very first impression of the CID building was of a big mysterious box. CID sat up on a hill, behind the buildings of the Small Wing and the general chimp colony of the GAW [(Great Ape Wing)], near the woods surrounding the compound. The walls were huge, windowless cement slabs. At the right side of the rectangular box, barred double doors with a peephole in the right door lead into the chimpanzee room. Another door, in the front right corner of the building, led into the tiny anteroom. The anteroom was cramped, dirty, and packed from floor to ceiling with supplies. At the far end of the anteroom, another door led into the chimpanzee room.
It was difficult for me to get a handle on Jerom at first. He was sick when I met him, and he seemed to spend most of his time sitting on his bed-board (a Lucite and steel shelf jutting out from the wall 6 feet from the floor). I’d been told that he was a jerk, and liked starting trouble especially with Manuel and being generally unfriendly with caretakers.
The day that I really got to meet the chimps was an accident. Due to an earlier incident, the principle investigator had mandated that no one was to enter CID alone, and so on a day designated to disinfect the cages, I joined my supervisor and a co-worker. ‘Scrubbing’ the building entailed requesting, enticing, or threatening the chimps to move through the slide doors into adjacent cells, where they were locked in, so that we could enter, chemically treat, and scrub with deck brushes the inside of the cells.
On this particular morning, soon after my inception to the GAW, my colleagues showed me how to work the slide doors and foam the cages; after about an hour of work they both had to leave for a meeting. I offered to remain behind and feed the chimps, as I was not permitted to open the cages without another care-tech present, as per the [principal investigator’s (PI)] orders.
We agreed to return to CID after lunch to resume scrubbing and the others adjourned to the anteroom to undress. I stayed in the chimpanzee area, putting up supplies; when I finished, I went to retrieve the chow barrel (plastic garbage can on wheels) from the anteroom, but the door would not open.
The door locked from the anteroom side with a key for the handle and a sliding bolt with a padlock. I could see the padlock on the chow barrel and the handle of the door worked, so I knew that one of my partners had slid the bolt to, and that I was locked in. I picked up the phone next to the door, but it was completely dead; I decided that pushing the escape alarm (attached to a large siren on the top of the building) would only cause chaos. I had nothing to feed the chimps, so I decided to kill time by scrubbing the remaining cells, despite orders to the contrary.
I spent the next two hours scrubbing, and by the time I finished, my rescue was not yet at hand. I took this opportunity to finally meet my new companions. I began to understand the way these chimpanzees lived, imprisoned and isolated in this dungeon, always waiting for the door to open.
Jerom was born on 23 February, 1982, so he was 13 years old when I met him. When I began to work in CID in the middle of August, 1995, he had been enduring a bout of diarrhea for the previous six months. My supervisor and another care-tech had been the primary caretakers during that time, and they frequently reported the state of Jerom’s stool.
They were requested on many occasions to bring samples to the laboratory for analysis. The care-techs claimed that samples were often misplaced by the lab, the vets often neglected to write an order for sample analysis, and that most samples that had been analyzed had no pathogens in them. The vets blamed a newly varied diet and then a recently implemented enrichment idea - straw on the cage floors - as causative agents for Jerom’s problem. The elimination of these treats did nothing to alleviate the diarrhea. Because no pathogens were found in his stool, no course of treatment ensued.
For six months Jerom lived like this; like humans with AIDS, Jerom’s diarrhea was accompanied by moderate wasting. When I started working in the building in August, I had a little trouble remembering the names and faces of all of the new chimps I was meeting. I had little experience up close and personal with chimps, and it took a little while for me to recognize the obvious individual characteristics of each chimpanzee face. But I knew that Jerom was getting sick; the first time I vividly remember identifying him in his social group he was sitting on his bed board, quite emaciated, with wild, sunken, staring eyes. Like the humans I’ve seen affected by wasting, I could see Jerom’s skull under his skin. (page 10)
It was generally believed that Jerom was going to die during this spell, and it was decided that Nathan would receive a transfusion of Jerom’s blood on 19 September. One method I’d found for absolving myself of the guilt I felt about the fate of these chimps was to remind myself that I had nothing to do with them being infected in the 1980s - I wasn’t even in high school yet when the project began.
On the morning of Nathan’s knockdown, I told one of the two attending vets that, due to ethical reasons, I would not allow myself to be present in the building for the transfusion. The vet told me that there would be no problem with my leaving.
After much screaming, Jerom was darted first and laid on the floor in the middle of the chimp room. Nathan was anesthetized and brought to lie next to Jerom. My role in all of this was to assist the vets in opening cages and carrying chimps. The rest of the procedure occurred so quickly that I found no opportunity to leave. The senior veterinarian drew two large vials of blood from Jerom and put them into Nathan’s left arm. I was horrified and I tried to walk away from the scene, but I kept coming back to watch. I fantasized about tackling the vet as she worked over Nathan. I didn’t.
I had known Nathan for over a month before he was infected with Jerom’s virus. The first time I remember meeting Nathan I was hot, tired, and sweating, trying to bag a huge pile of filthy straw a co-worker and I had removed from the cages. I was in front of Nathan and Sara’s cage toiling over my chore when I realized that Nathan was sitting on the floor of his cage, watching. He was giggling, in his own quirky manner, with a big grin and his tongue pressed between his teeth.
I don’t know what he found so funny, but from that day Nate and I became pals. He always laughed and grinned and always sweetly held my hand. When Nathan came up from the anesthetic after being given Jerom’s blood, he never treated me the same. The first noticeable changes in his personality were an increased irritability, and a peculiar habit of sucking in his cheeks and biting on his lips nervously - he began to do this constantly. He also stopped holding my hand: instead he tried to crush my fingers.
I went to the PI and voiced my concern about Jerom’s permanent isolation. He had authority over his chimps’ housing conditions, as well as the direction of the project. He told me that he believed that auditory and visual contact with the other chimps in the building were all that Jerom really needed. I pointed out that the researcher himself would not be content to live in such a situation, that the calls of inaccessible friends bouncing off of cinder block and concrete walls would not be much of a comfort if he was sick.
During our conversation, he admonished me to stop caring so much about these chimpanzees. I explained that the only way that I could care for them was to care about them: he told me that I needed to remember why we were at Yerkes. I also asked him on that day when he planned to euthanize Jerom. He told me that Jerom would be ‘put down’ when he had an undisputed opportunistic infection.
I’m sure that it seems ironic and hypocritical for me to have made such a query. In truth, my motivation was purely utilitarian. As Jerom’s self-appointed advocate I felt that it was no longer in his best interest to continue living. It was a very difficult conclusion for me to arrive at, but Jerom’s future was bleak. He could only look forward to more opportunistic infections, chronic isolation, more terror-invoking knockdowns, and no assistance from any HIV treatments, experimental or otherwise. There was no active experimental research being performed on Jerom. It seemed that his only duty was to wait while the disease progressed.
The day before Jerom died I spent hours with him, and noted in my journal that I hadn’t seen him laugh in weeks. It had been my goal, every day of the previous six months, to make him laugh. Many days I did not succeed, but I always tried. In the morning my supervisor sent me to CID with a Coke, a Butterfinger candy-bar, and some powdered donuts. After I’d suited up and said good morning, I put some Coke in a paper cup and held it up to the bars for Jerom to drink. He was quite wary of the liquid, and looked at it fizzing for a long time before putting his finger in it. He wouldn’t drink any, so I gave him the candy-bar, which he seemed to enjoy.
As I said, I spent virtually my entire day with Jerom. I wanted to be assured that I had done everything I possibly could for him. I saved the powdered donuts for his evening meal. I opened the package and handed them to him one by one. He seemed to know what they were, and after eating one (and getting powdered sugar all over his face) put the others carefully on his bed board. That was Jerom’s last day.
The vet decided not to wait for the PI’s okay, after all. He went to get the gurney. I said good-bye to Jerom. The vet returned with a gurney covered in white sheets - unusual, royal treatment (usually the chimps were slung, unceremoniously, onto the cold steel gurney). I bent down to pick up Jerom’s feet, and the vet told me not to: my supervisor came into the chimp room, into Jerom’s cell, picked up his feet while the vet picked up his arms. They put him on the sheets and covered him in more sheets.
He looked like he was sleeping; everyone else in the building yelled and screamed and jumped up and down. No one had ever left CID before. I kissed Jerom goodbye as they took him away. He died on the table in the necropsy room two hours later.
After the end
The following Monday I began what was to be a week-long vacation, but by the end of the week I had realized that I couldn’t support the work being done at Yerkes, and that I wouldn’t return. I resigned my position on the 23rd of February, 1996.
I was amused to find that the management seemed quite upset at news of my resignation. I received phone calls from the personnel director, who’d called the Center’s director at home, at night and over the weekend, excitedly wanting an explanation for my sudden decision. I decided to request an exit interview, time alone with the personnel director to vent, and I began preparing my statement. I was told that the director had requested to sit in on the meeting.
The director’s presence at my exit interview was an unprecedented event, and this man listened to me, a lowly care-tech, for over an hour. He had to leave before the meeting’s conclusion. He stood up, walked across the small office and, towering over me, shook my hand, looking me square in the eye. I met his challenging stare and thought that he looked a bit frightened. I didn’t know whether that look meant that I had scared him because of what I might do with the information I’d learned, or because somewhere inside him he knew I was right. Whatever its source, it was that look that gave me the inspiration to write Jerom’s story.
Chimpanzees are distinct individuals with unique personalities. As fellow Great Apes, they have innate rights upon which we are trespassing when we take possession of their bodies and use them for experiments like the one you’ve just read about.
I want you to know that Jerom’s infection, isolation and agony really did happen. To my great horror and dismay, I’ve learned that Yerkes RPRC is continuing experiments on chimpanzees with virus isolated from Jerom’s and Nathan’s blood (HIV-1jc and -1nc), as is the study’s original principal investigator. Their future is no brighter than his was. I am deeply saddened to think that a species as noble as ours can believe that what happened to him can in any way be justified.
Rachel I. Weiss
Former Primate Caregiver at Yerkes