April, Anna, Lucy and Cash knew nothing but being trapped indoors at a roadside zoo run by a convicted fraudster in Ohio, but now the four chimpanzees are settling into life at an animal sanctuary in Florida.
The chimps were recently rescued from Union Ridge Wildlife Center, which was run by Cyril (Cy) Vierstra, a township official who is in jail for diverting public money to himself and to his roadside attraction.
Save the Chimps took custody of the animals aged 13 to 26 on April 11. The group says the chimps are adjusting to life in their large outdoor space, grooming and even hugging each other. They will remain in quarantine for two months before they are introduced to the rest of the sanctuary’s animals.
“These are extremely intelligent chimpanzees who deserve the chance to explore a larger world,” Dr. Andrew Halloran, the group’s director of chimpanzee behaviour and care, said in a statement.
“We look forward to seeing them thrive on a vast island habitat with 15-20 new lifelong companions, with the freedom to choose where they want to be and who they want to be with.”
PETA, which was instrumental in removing the chimps from the Union Ridge Wildlife Center and funding their care, called Vierstra a “notorious animal exploiter.” The chimps were perpetually confined and subjected to the stench of cigarette smoke.
PETA filed formal complaints with the Ohio Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture about Vierstra’s treatment of the chimps. The animal rights organization had complained about him before.
Brittany Peet, general counsel for captive animal law enforcement with the PETA Foundation, said in an interview she’s relieved officials acted upon the complaints and these animals are now safe.
“Ohio does enforce, confiscate animals and importantly, the Ohio Department of Agriculture takes great care in the animals they secure; that the animals are actually placed at facilities that will provide the animals with the care they need.”
In its report this week, the Ohio Auditor of State ordered Vierstra, a former fiscal officer in Vinton Township, to pay restitution of more than $345,000.
Auditors said Vierstra used public money to buy, among other things, a wildebeest, two owls, windows for the primate exhibit at his roadside zoo, along with other items that had nothing to do with the township.
Last fall he pleaded guilty to a number of corruption offences and earlier this year was sentenced to almost five years in prison.
While Vierstra is effectively out of the roadside zoo business, PETA estimates there are at least 1,000 roadside zoos across the United States and potentially hundreds or thousands more that aren’t regulated by any level of government.
“In the US, we have a particularly dire problem with horrific welfare concerns, neglect and exploitation in roadside zoos and that is all made even worse by the fact that the USDA, Department of Agriculture Enforcement of Animal Welfare Act, and current regulations under the act are the bare minimum standards,” Peet explained.
Ohio, she added, probably has the strongest rules around these types of facilities.
While PETA and other animal welfare groups continue to lobby local, state and federal officials to step up, they ask ordinary citizens to do their part.
“If people just stopped buying tickets to roadside zoos today, that’s another way to put an end to this roadside industry,” Peet said.
Seeing the rescue of April, Anna, Cash and Lucy, the chimps embracing each other and their new freedom, also helps, she said.
“That really impacts people,” Peet added. “We want to make sure these stories get told so the public education is a vital part of this.”
Dr. Halloran met the chimps in Ohio before they made their way to Florida, in part to figure out how well they would fit into the sanctuary’s twelve chimp islands. So far, they are thriving in quarantine.
“We admire their exuberance for sanctuary life as each meal, visit by care staff, and enrichment activity brings them such overwhelming joy,” the sanctuary said.