LaChappelle was feeling discarded himself. When he started at Immunex 11 years earlier he was just out of the Navy, where he’d worked on nuclear propulsion systems and was, he says, the only seaman on his battleship who didn’t cheer when it was announced in 1991 that the U.S. had invaded Iraq. He oversaw the building and renovation of laboratories at Immunex, which manufactured the drug Leukine, designed to raise the white blood cell count of leukemia patients undergoing chemo. In a room LaChapelle had no access to, Immunex kept mice for testing, which nagged at him. Growing up in a Denver suburb and rural Minnesota, he and his sister reigned over an ark of critters—dogs, cats, guinea pigs, ducks, rabbits, and ferrets. Testing on mice was bad enough, he thought, but one day he overheard an employee talk about Immunex potentially contracting out Leukine experiments on chimpanzees.
The Discover article further spurred his guilt. “It talked about how a lot of chimpanzees aren’t actively being used for research,” LaChappelle explains, “but they’re still languishing in these five-by-five lab cages because there’s nowhere for them to go.”
Now the company that had recently acquired Immunex was about to lay him off, and the six-figure severance package barely dulled the sting. He was 36 years old with no job and no plans for the future. But he did have $200,000. He faxed the article to his sister Cynthia, at the time a caretaker at the Dallas Zoo. He included a note: “You want to start an ape sanctuary with me?”
Then he hopped on a plane.
He visited the handful of existing sanctuaries around the country, such as Save Chimps in Florida. He asked questions and studied the construction of chimp houses. In 2004 he made his way to Montreal’s Fauna Foundation, the sanctuary in the Discover article. There he met Billy Jo. The chimp had undergone nearly 50 biopsies in labs and, under the hallucinogenic effects of the tranquilizer ketamine, chewed off his own thumbs. LaChappelle looked into the chimp’s eyes and saw the depth of intelligence and awareness. “After that it was no longer just an ideal or dream,” LaChappelle says. “I had to do something.”
Humans and chimpanzees—which broke off from a common ancestor 6 million years ago—have a complex relationship to say the least. In the twentieth century alone, we used chimps as crash test dummies, carved them up to better understand the human body, and dressed them in diapers and tuxedos and beat them into submission so they’d make us laugh.
We started to understand them, too. Through Jane Goodall’s observations in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania in the ’60s and ’70s, we discovered chimpanzees’ profound intelligence, that they make and use tools (such as twigs to extract termites from holes), mourn the loss of dead offspring, and perform elaborate “rain dances” during downpours.