The founder of Tumalo-based Chimps Inc. — who denied a history of primate attacks when an intern was mauled in August 2008 — now admits chimpanzees there have bitten off fingers and thumbs of staffers and harmed others at the compound.
In an ongoing lawsuit against the sanctuary, newly filed depositions of the sanctuary’s president and founder, Lesley Day, include descriptions of five separate chimpanzee attacks on current and former employees as well as her husband.
Kristen Howard is a former intern who sued the facility for $828,000 after a 19-year-old primate named Kimie beat her and bit off her thumb after passing through two unlocked security gates.
At the time, Day told The Bulletin that primate escapes were rare at the facility, and the chimpanzees had not caused anyone harm.
“Chimpanzees are not out to hurt anyone,” Day said. “We have had a couple of escapes in the past; no one was ever hurt.”
But in a December 2009 deposition, Day described three attacks by primates in which the animals bit off parts of the fingers or thumbs of staffers working there. In a fourth attack, a chimpanzee violently grabbed a “caregiver’s” arm and pulled off the skin between the wrist and elbow, Day said.
She also said that her husband was bitten on the back by a chimp named Patti when Day was taking the animal to her house for a visit.
Chimps Inc. houses eight chimpanzees — five female and three male — and two Siberian lynx and is one of nine chimpanzee refuges in the United States, according to its Web site.
Attorney Steve Vorhees represents Chimps Inc. and read a prepared statement Wednesday in response to a request for comment.
“Chimps Inc. regrets the injuries sustained by Kristen Howard and this unfortunate accident,” Vorhees said, adding that the company “disagrees with the facts, characterizations, and arguments raised by Ms. Howard’s attorneys.”
Howard did not respond to an e-mail requesting comment, and her Portland lawyer, Paul Berg, declined to comment on the case.
Howard’s lawyers have filed documents saying Kimie once escaped and bit a jogger. And in her December 2009 deposition, the sanctuary’s executive director, Paula Muellner, said Kimie bit her on the arm and broke the skin “a couple years ago.”
Howard alleges Day and others regularly ignored safety protocols and continued to take chimps on outings within the compound after attacks had occurred. Howard also says she was misled about security measures designed to protect workers from the primates.
Bev Clarno, a former state senator and Deschutes County commissioner, serves on the nonprofit’s board and said Wednesday that she and her fellow board members are confident in the safety measures at Chimps Inc.
Clarno said the sanctuary follows nationally recognized security standards that apply to facilities housing non-domestic animals.
Lawyers for Chimps Inc. have filed a motion to dismiss Howard’s suit, saying she signed a liability waiver before starting her internship in 2008, giving up her right to sue for any injuries sustained on the job.
The release Howard signed says she understood the “risks and dangers” involved in being around the primates and that she agreed to forgo any claims for injuries or death “even though this liability may arise from negligence or carelessness on the part of the persons being released.”
“This was precisely the sort of attack (Howard) knew could happen, and her injuries were precisely the kind she is barred from recovering by the Release she admits she understood and signed,” Chimps Inc.’s motion to dismiss says.
Howard’s lawyers have argued that the release was invalid because Chimps Inc. assured her that she would have no contact with primates, and security gates would always be locked.
Documents filed by Howard’s lawyers say Chimps Inc.’s written policies prohibited anyone other than Day or Muellner from calling 911 for any reason and that authorities would be called only in a “life-threatening” situation.
“(Chimps Inc.) has that policy to avoid scrutiny over safety concerns,” one document says.
Staffers were barred under sanctuary rules from discussing with outsiders human-chimp interactions at the compound, a policy that documents filed by Howard’s lawyer say was intended to “conceal the pet-like treatment of chimpanzees and their violent attacks on humans.”
In her deposition, Day admits to taking both Kimie and Patti to her personal residence for visits.
“While there, they roam freely, raiding the refrigerator, engaging in scavenger hunts, making movies, playing with Day’s cat, brushing their teeth ... and wrestling with Day in her bedroom with the door closed,” Howard’s lawyers wrote.
The primates housed at the facility come from roadside zoos, the entertainment industry and the private sector, according to the Chimps Inc. Web site.
Kimie was used for exhibits and birthday parties when she was young and housed in a crate in a garage, the site reads. She came to Chimps Inc. in 1998 after she was found in Lebanon living in an enclosure made of chicken wire.