The founder of Chimps Inc., who stepped down as president of the Tumalo chimpanzee sanctuary in 2017 after safety and labor violations, has evicted the organization from her property — a dispute that may see the apes moved to Iowa.

Lesley Day started Chimps Inc. on her property in 1995 and continued to lease space to the sanctuary after relinquishing control. But she evicted the organization over disagreements about the sanctuary’s mission and who should operate it after incidents that included chimpanzees biting off the fingers of workers. Chimps Inc. management plans to move the sanctuary’s seven chimpanzees to the Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative, a research facility in Des Moines, Iowa.

The potential move upset Day, who then gave her support to a new nonprofit, a Bend-based organization called Freedom for Great Apes, and signed a long-term lease with the group to let it take control of the sanctuary.

Although Chimps Inc. has control of the apes and the right to move them under certain conditions, Freedom for Great Apes is gathering public support through an online petition to stop the move to Iowa. The petition has more than 4,000 signatures.

“They apparently would rather transfer the chimpanzees to a research facility than allow the very well-qualified folks at FGA take over the operation of the sanctuary,” Day said.

Michel Waller, board president at Chimps Inc., said the organization has failed to negotiate with Day since the board of directors removed her from day-to-day operations in 2017 after state investigations found safety and labor violations that resulted in more than $60,000 in fines.

Oregon Occupational Safety & Health Administration inspectors uncovered 30 incidents, including cage doors left open and chimpanzees that had escaped or attacked workers in past years, resulting in bites, scratches, bruises, skin being completely torn off hands and at least four finger or thumb amputations.

Oregon OSHA fined Chimps Inc. $12,520, and the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries recently ordered Chimps Inc. to pay three former employees $16,000 each through a settlement agreement.

Many of the issues were related to Day’s close relationship with the chimpanzees and her failure to follow the sanctuary’s own protocols. Day even lost her right pinkie finger in July 2013 when a chimpanzee bit it off. Day said she feels like a scapegoat and a bulk of the violations were the responsibility of the then executive director.

“Due to these violations, it was the board’s opinion that she was incapable or unwilling to follow our safety protocol,” Waller said. “That is what led to our eviction. Any other reason proffered is a trumped up excuse.”

Day said she advised Chimps Inc. in April that she would not renew their year-long lease unless changes were made in the leadership and management of the organization. Day said she had lost confidence in the leadership from their unwillingness to negotiate turning over the sanctuary and care of the chimpanzees to Freedom for Great Apes.

“Instead of fully addressing the issues I raised, they began efforts to transfer the chimpanzees,” Day said.

Day said there are legal options available to stop the chimpanzees’ move to Iowa.

“I personally feel that the research transfer threatened by Mr. Waller and his colleagues is a violation of the governing mission of the sanctuary, a misapplication of donated funds, and a threat to the health and welfare of these amazing animals,” she said.

Day, who said she is not associated with Freedom for Great Apes, said the new organization has her full support and would be better aligned to care for the seven chimpanzees, who range in age from 16 to older than 50. The chimpanzees were rescued from private owners who had used them for entertainment at venues such as Marine World in California and shows in Las Vegas.

Freedom for Great Apes has a leadership team of six members, including co-founder and president Sally Pfeifer, the owner and executive director of Pfeifer & Associates and Deschutes Monitoring Services. Other members include a former executive director at Chimps Inc. and others who have worked with chimpanzees at universities and nonprofit organizations across the globe.

“The team at FGA has far more experience in successfully caring for rescued chimpanzees and in operating great ape sanctuaries,” Day said.

Day and Freedom for Great Apes have concerns over moving the chimpanzees and sending them to the research facility in Iowa. They worry the cross-country travel will be hard on the chimpanzees and the new facility is not able to meet the needs of the group, which has formed a social bond led by two alpha males.

“Imagine being uprooted from your home of 23 years and sent to a strange place surrounded by people you don’t know, and asked to perform tricks with puzzles to get a reward,” Day said.

Waller said the concerns are unfounded. He believes the Iowa facility is vastly superior and said it’s on 230 acres of forest with indoor housing and six acres of accessible outdoor habitat. In contrast, the Tumalo sanctuary sits on less than one acre, Waller said.

The type of research done at the Iowa facility is non-invasive and non-medical, and the chimpanzees will not be bred at the facility, Waller said.

The research done relates to presenting the chimpanzees with puzzle games and language software to better understand the similarities between apes and humans, he said.

As for the travel, Waller plans to enlist experienced animal movers to minimize the stress on the chimpanzees.

“They will be traveling with people they know, as well as a veterinarian every step of the way,” he said.

And when they arrive in Iowa, the chimpanzees will stay together, Waller said.

“We are not splitting the chimps up,” he said. “They will remain together for the remainder of their lives.”

Waller said the move to Iowa, which has not been scheduled, is in the best interest of the chimpanzees under the circumstances.

The move is necessary after Chimps Inc. was evicted, but the organization intends to stay active and support the chimpanzees from afar, Waller said.

“Our care and commitment to these apes is not bound by geography,” he said. “We will continue to serve them as an organization.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7820,