Nine years after an intern tried to sue Chimps Inc. claiming unsafe working conditions contributed to her being mauled by a chimpanzee, similar allegations have surfaced, including a complaint that workers are not allowed to call 911 during an emergency.

Three Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries complaints — filed in early May by former Chimps Inc. employees — claim workers were left alone with the animals without a “back-up person” for safety. The complaints also claim workers were forced to do their job among chimpanzee feces and hazardous chemicals.

Further, the employees claim they were fired after refusing to waive their right to call 911 during an emergency. The intern who sued in 2009, former Arizona State University student Kristen Howard, also claimed she was not allowed to call 911 during an emergency.

Chimps Inc. is a nonprofit chimpanzee sanctuary located at Hooker Creek Ranch near Bend.

Zeya Wagner, who filed her labor complaint May 5, was hired Feb. 21 as a chimpanzee caregiver. Wagner said during weekly meetings she told supervisors that she and other employees were being put in unsafe situations — complaints that produced a hostile work environment, she claims. She and other employees were “yelled at and management would often point their finger in our faces as a form of intimidation,” Wagner claims.

Wagner also claims that on March 30, she met with Lesley Day, Chimps Inc. founder and president; Marla O’Donnell, its executive director; and board member Zeila Flannery. Among the things discussed was management’s refusal to take her complaints seriously, and Wagner’s refusal to sign a waiver stating she would not call 911 during an emergency. Wagner states she was fired that day for refusing to sign the waiver.

On May 9, former employee Jennifer Harris filed an identical state labor complaint. She claims she was hired Feb. 22 as a chimpanzee caregiver and was fired March 30 for the same reasons cited in Wagner’s dismissal. Harris also filed a second labor bureau complaint stating she was fired for whistleblowing.

When reached Wednesday, O’Donnell acknowledged the labor complaints. She said Chimps Inc. is in the process of responding to the complaints, which arose due to “disgruntled employees.”

Day declined to comment.

Efforts to reach Wagner and Harris were unsuccessful.

Chimps Inc.’s history with disgruntled employees was detailed in court documents after Howard, the intern, attempted to sue the nonprofit organization. Howard was attacked 10 days into her internship when a chimpanzee named Kimie came through an unlocked tunnel connected to a cage Howard and another intern were cleaning.

Kimie jumped on Howard’s back and bit her repeatedly. Howard lost most of her thumb in the attack.

Howard subsequently filed suit against Chimps Inc. for $828,000, but the lawsuit was thrown out in 2012 after Deschutes County Circuit Judge A. Michael Adler ruled Howard had failed to demonstrate that her injuries were the result of recklessness or indifference of the sanctuary operators. The Oregon Court of Appeals upheld Adler’s ruling.

During court proceedings, it was found that another employee had been previously attacked when a chimpanzee pulled the employee’s arm through a door and ripped off the skin between her elbow and wrist. A year after Howard was attacked, another caregiver lost the tip of her thumb to a chimpanzee.

Excerpts from a nondisclosure agreement were included in the court ruling. At the time, interns were required to sign it, and it barred them from discussing the “inner workings” of the sanctuary or from calling 911 to report an emergency. Only Day was allowed to call 911, per the agreement.

Day acknowledged this in court, saying it was to avoid scrutiny over safety concerns. According to court testimony, Day approached Howard on the day she was injured and said, “Who called 911? It’s just your thumb.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0376, awieber@bendbulletin.com

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