After receiving three separate complaints in April, Oregon OSHA inspected Chimps Inc. and found 10 safety and policy violations, totaling more than $20,000 in fines for the nonprofit chimpanzee sanctuary.
But in its 541-page report, the state’s OSHA agency, officially known as the Oregon Occupational Safety & Health Division, also identified 30 incidents over the years, including cage doors left open and chimpanzees that had escaped or attacked workers, resulting in bites, scratches, bruises, skin being completely torn off hands and at least four finger or thumb amputations. None of the incidents was reported to OSHA or ever made public, according to the report.
The sanctuary — already being investigated for complaints filed with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries — is appealing OSHA’s 10 recent findings, which were based on three site visits in April and July. An informal settlement conference is scheduled 9 a.m. Wednesday at the state agency’s field office in Bend.
The sanctuary said it has addressed most of its safety issues and just needs clarification on how to fix remaining concerns.
“They have to do their job, and we have to try to abide by what they say and make sure we are the safest we can be,” said Chimps Inc. Executive Director Marla O’Donnell.
Chimps Inc. opened in 1995 and now houses seven chimpanzees ranging in age from 16 to 52. The chimpanzees were rescued from private owners who had used them for entertainment at venues that included Marine World in California and shows in Las Vegas.
The OSHA report states that employees “were exposed to physical harm including, but not limited to, amputations, choking, grabbing and biting from chimpanzees.” It also notes that sanctuary founder Lesley Day lost her right pinkie finger in July 2013 when a chimpanzee bit it off.
Many of the safety issues in the report stemmed from Day’s close relationship with the chimpanzees and her failure to follow the sanctuary’s own protocols.
After work hours, Day would open chimpanzee enclosure doors and feed doors and leave them unlocked. Employees arriving for work the next morning were repeatedly and unknowingly in danger of an unsecured chimpanzee attack, according to the report.
“Oregon OSHA identified and concluded the root cause of most, if not all, injuries, escapes and incidents are due to the sanctuary founder Lesley Day’s access to, and failure to secure the sanctuary’s chimpanzees,” the report stated.
Day stepped down as president of the sanctuary this summer and no longer has authority over staff. All of the locks have been changed, and Day does not have any keys.
In addition, the sliding feed doors have been sealed shut, and the chimpanzees are now fed only through tilting feeding doors.
Before stepping down, Day expressed frustration to an OSHA inspector about what they were ordered to do and how the inspection was reducing her access and contact with the chimpanzees.
“We had to lock the slide door in the front enclosure after your last visit,” Day said. “I can only contact the chimps through the enclosures. It’s not like it used to be and the chimps miss it.”
Concerns about workplace safety led to a lawsuit in 2009 and three labor complaints this year.
An intern, Kristen Howard, sued in 2009 after she was attacked by a chimpanzee that came through an unlocked tunnel Howard was cleaning. The case was dismissed in 2012.
Three former Chimps Inc. employees — Aleeza Davis, Zeya Wagner and Jennifer Harris — all filed complaints in May with the state Bureau of Labor and Industries, claiming they were fired for refusing to sign waivers, including signing away their ability to call 911 during an emergency.
Charlie Burr, spokesman for BOLI, said the complaints are still being investigated.
O’Donnell, who has worked at Chimps Inc. for 13 years, said there is nothing written in the manual about not calling 911. O’Donnell clarified the manual by adding language stating employees can call 911 as they see fit.
The OSHA report notes the entire paid workforce at Chimps Inc. quit in March over safety concerns. And in April, the new caregivers — who included the three women who filed labor complaints — were fired, citing safety concerns and refusing to sign liability releases.
A new group of employees was on site during the July inspection.
O’Donnell said employees are required to sign the waivers, and the group in April refused.
“I said, ‘I cannot keep you here if you are not going to sign these.’ I gave them three weeks, and they wouldn’t sign them. So I sat them down with my board of directors and said, ‘If you are not going to sign these I have to ask you to leave,’” O’Donnell said. “That’s what I did. Then all of this backlash came.”
The sanctuary recently added a caregiver, bringing the total number of paid employees to five. At least two employees work at one time, and only one carries all of the keys each shift, O’Donnell said.
The OSHA inspection identified a concern with workers cleaning or doing maintenance on top of the steel wire enclosures and tunnels that are about 10 feet off the ground.
To address that, O’Donnell is having railings welded along the top of the enclosures and is no longer allowing employees go out on top of them.
“No one is going up there,” O’Donnell said. “If we have a need to go up there it will be contracted out.”
Another issue brought up in the inspection was the way the chimpanzees are sedated. The sanctuary prefers to mix the drug Telazol in with the chimpanzees’ food, rather than use a dart gun, which the inspector suggested.
The sanctuary’s veterinarian has assured the state agency the drug is a better option.
“The inspector’s opinion is in direct conflict with what our team of chimpanzee specialist veterinarians have recommended our team to use in the case of sedation,” the sanctuary wrote in its appeal.
As recently as five years ago, the sanctuary used to throw beer cans in the enclosures along with Telazol hidden in the food to sedate the chimpanzees.
“During one chimp escape, two oral doses of Telazol and several beers were consumed; three to four hours passed before the chimp fell asleep,” the report stated.
The inspection also suggested workers should spray water instead of using pepper spray in the event of a chimpanzee attack because pepper spray could blow back onto the workers.
O’Donnell said spraying water between two chimps helps break up fights, but water would not stop them from approaching a human. Pepper spray works best, she said.
All four staff members and O’Donnell are also certified to use a handgun, shotgun and tranquilizer gun.
“They hate water,” O’Donnell said. “It wouldn’t be enough to deter them.”
The sanctuary is a founding member of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance and is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It was accredited with the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, the only such agency for animal sanctuaries, but it lost the accreditation in March due to the safety concerns.
Accreditation is not mandatory, but it is industry standard for animal sanctuaries in the United States.
O’Donnell said the sanctuary is working to regain its accreditation, but one requirement is being in good standing with the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
She hopes to move a step closer to that goal at Wednesday’s settlement conference.
“Once we get this behind us, we will be good to move forward with our accreditation,” she said.
— Reporter: 541-617-7820, email@example.com
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to remove incorrect information regarding the location of Chimps Inc.