Anyone who believes that people who work in the nonprofit sector are ipso facto morally superior to the rest of us might want to consider the story of The New York Blood Center and the 60 or so chimpanzees that it abandoned last year in Liberia.
The NYBC, as it’s known, is a nonprofit that generated nearly $400 million in revenues last year and had about $480 million in assets, according to Guidestar. It says it can no longer afford to feed the chimpanzees.
By its own account, the NYBC conducted biomedical research on hundreds of chimps between 1974 and 2004, in a partnership with the Liberian ministry of health. Its researchers studied the hepatitis virus, which can threaten the safety of donated blood, at a facility called Vilab II. When the animal testing stopped, the NYBC paid for the feeding of the remaining chimps until March 2015 when the nonprofit “concluded it could no longer divert funds from its important lifesaving mission here at home.”
The chimps were left to fend for themselves on a half dozen small islands, without food or fresh water, where they would have died were it not for the intervention of animal-welfare advocates led by the Humane Society of the United States. HSUS has kept the chimps alive, with the help of a crowdfunding campaign at GoFundMe.
Earlier today [Sept. 27), HSUS held a news conference in Washington to call attention to the situation and to say that Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor and UN ambassador, had joined the campaign on behalf of the chimps. Richardson made a $35,000 donation to support the chimps through his nonprofit, the Richardson Center for Public Engagement, and he called on NYBC and its donors to take responsibility for their welfare.
Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of HSUS, said: “For a private charity with a budget in the hundreds of millions, and assets of $400 million, this is unacceptable conduct,” he said. “Why is it okay to dump this responsibility on someone else. Because we care more?”
“It gets me very upset when people do terrible things to animals and walk away and leave it to us to pick up the pieces,” Pacelle added.
A broken promise
Wait, it gets worse. The New York Times reported last year that the director of the facility had pledged to provide for the remaining chimpanzees.
A decade ago, the blood center appeared to be committed to caring for the chimps in retirement. Alfred M. Prince, director of the Vilab II project for the blood center, wrote an article in the American Society of Primatologists Bulletin in December 2005, seeking a foundation to take over care of the chimps. Dr. Prince wrote that the blood center “recognizes its responsibility to provide an endowment to fund the Sanctuary for the lifetime care of the chimpanzees.”
The NYBC now says, in effect, that it has changed its mind. In an FAQ on its website, the group says:
Dr. Prince was an employee of NYBC, but he made statements that were his own opinions and not authorized or approved by NYBC. The Government of Liberia and numerous animal right organizations knew all along that our support after our last contract ended was entirely voluntary and could not continue.
Mind you, Dr. Prince wasn’t talking off the cuff to a government official or a reporter. He wrote about NYBC’s “responsibility to provide an endowment” for “lifetime care” in an professional society newsletter. Chimpanzees, by the way, can live as long as 60 years.
In the FAQ, the NYBC also says: “We care deeply about the welfare of the chimpanzees in the Liberian sanctuary.”
Maybe so. But they don’t care enough to get the animals the food and fresh water they need. The costs of doing so, according to Pacelle, are about $30,000 a month.
NYBC says it can’t divert resources away from its core mission of providing blood to those who need it. “NYBC’s responsibility is to our blood donors, hospitals and patients here in the New York area and throughout the United States,” he says.
But, according to the NYBC’s most recent Form 990, its responsibility to its clients didn’t prevent the nonprofit from paying $1,519,795 in total compensation to Christopher Hillyer, its president and CEO, in 2014. That’s not bad for a nonprofit CEO, even in New York City. Two other senior executives were paid more than $500,000, and five more were paid at least $400,000.
The chairman of the NYBC board is Howard P. Milstein, the chairman, president and chief executive officer of New York Private Bank & Trust and its operating bank, Emigrant Bank, which is the country’s largest privately owned, family-run bank. A prominent real estate executive and philanthropist, Milstein has resisted calls for him to get involved.
The question facing Pacelle, Richardson and others agitating on behalf of the chimps is, what might compel NYBC to change its mind and take even partial responsibility for the chimps? Richardson plans to approach the blood center, its donors and board. Dr. Brian Hare, a Duke University anthropologist, has collected more than 200,000 signatures on a Change.org petition to the New York Blood Center. An animal rights group called Their Turn has noisily picketed the homes of NYBC board members, as the video below shows.
For now, though, HSUS has assumed de facto responsibility for the chimpanzees. (As NYBC says, disingenuously, on its website, when asked about its moral responsibility for the chimps: “Reports indicate they are currently being fed and cared for and are in good health.”) Some of the animals are quite young, so the problem isn’t going away anytime soon.
“We need a more permanent solution,” Pacelle said. “We won’t walk away. We can’t.”