In Liberia, there is an island only inhabited by chimpanzees abandoned after medical testing. And they’re solely dependent on the care of one incredible man who has been feeding them for the past 40 years.
Joseph Thomas tosses bananas to the 66 chimpanzees living on the aptly named Monkey Island. He greets them affectionately. He has known some of them since they were babies. But this wasn’t supposed to be his life’s work.
Thomas was a young tennis player with dreams of going professional when he met a researcher from the New York Blood Center. She said she would give him a job in exchange for tennis lessons. And that’s how, at age 20, Thomas became a caretaker at the New York Blood Center’s chimp laboratory in Robertsville, Liberia. His job was to feed the animals, clean up after them, and get to know their distinct personalities. He came to consider them as children.
Four years later, Thomas was promoted to medical technician. The chimps were infected with hepatitis and river blindness as researchers looked to develop vaccines. Thomas and the New York Blood Center hoped the experiments would ease suffering in West Africa and elsewhere.
Animal experimentation is not ideal. Neither is taking wild animals out of the natural habitat. And when Liberia entered a period of chaos in the early 1990s, the American researchers—except for Thomas—abandoned the lab. As the conflict continued into the 2000s, the New York Blood Center stopped all of its testing.
What would happen to all of the animals?
They couldn’t fend for themselves after being in captivity for all those years. And they had been infected with diseases that might spread to others.
“The only way to hold them was to put them on an island,” Thomas said.
So the chimpanzees were relocated to what became known as Monkey Island. Thomas and other caretakers delivered buckets of bananas, lettuce, and other foods to the animals every two days. A veterinarian occasionally checked on them.
Money started to get tight. Then it ran out altogether.
But Thomas did not give up.
He and other caretakers went to gather donated food, which was particularly hard during that time of violence and the outbreak of Ebola. But they kept the chimps alive as they searched for alternatives.
As the chimps were starting to get desperate and hungry, Thomas found an ally in the Humane Society in Washington. The nonprofit has since bankrolled the care, spending about $500,000 annually on Monkey Island’s residents making sure they are well-fed.
And Thomas still is hands-on, making sure his chimpanzee family is thriving despite the most incredible of challenges.
“I’ll be doing this,” he said, “until they die or I do.”