Costumed chimps used to make me grin ear to ear when I saw them on TV. Now I realize there’s little that separates that delight from coveting a Chinese potion made from rhino tusks. It is sad to lose this pleasure, but somehow I’ll manage.

After a visit to Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Sierra Leone, I knew my days of snickering at chimps imitating actors were over. As it turns out, many other non-Africans have delighted in chimps before me. Since 1950, the small West African country exported more than 2,000 live chimps to the US, Japan, and Europe for the entertainment industry and for biomedical research. A law restricting such exports was passed in the eighties, but chimps continued to be owned within Sierra Leone, typically by tourists and expatriates including Peace Corps volunteers [reference 1]. A young chimp sells for US$61 on average, which is a pretty price in a country where most people survive on less than $1 per day.

Young chimps are super cute! But as they age, the jungle within appears. They flip tables, tear down drapes, and occasionally attack. A grown chimp is far stronger than a grown man, and it bears fiercer teeth. (Remember when Travis the chimp, a former star in Coca Cola and Old Navy commercials, mauled Charla Nash in Connecticut?) People tend to ditch their pet chimps once they’ve grown, but these human-raised creatures can no longer fend for themselves in the wild, and zoos often turn them away because they do not know how to integrate within chimp society.

Chimps at Tacugama from Amy Maxmen on Vimeo.

Thus, in 1995, an accountant in Sierra Leone, Bala Amarasekaran, established Tacugama Chimp Sanctuary to rehabilitate orphaned chimps, and to advocate against the chimpanzee pet trade. Some of the sanctuary’s chimps are donated by expatriates who no longer want their pets. Others are discovered within cages in abandoned houses, or chained by the road for sale. More recently, authorities confiscate illegally owned chimps because of a 2007 law prohibiting the capture, killing, or possession of chimps in Sierra Leone, and bring them to Tacugama.

A skinny Sierra Leonean man with a lazy eye and a warm demeanor named Moses Kappia led my tour of Tacugama Sanctuary. As we watched chimps howl and bounce through various rehabilitation enclosures, we talked about the history of the sanctuary.

When Kappia arrived at Tacugama 16 years ago, he watched it blossom with start-up donations from the European Union. Soon after, the sanctuary struggled to survive as civil war ripped through Sierra Leone. In 1997, rebels broke into the sanctuary and threatened to kill the chimpanzees for food, but Kappia and the few remaining staff convinced them to spare the animals. Instead, the rebels stole their belongings, their food, and the food and medicine intended for the chimps. The rebels returned again during that brutal, 11-year “blood diamond” war, and again Kappia defended the chimps.

As the war wound down in 2002, Tacugama joined together with other African primate sanctuaries in the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance. They still struggle for funds, but manage to care for nearly 100 orphaned chimps that now frolic in their fenced-in slice of jungle.

Ali, my taxi driver, accompanied me on the tour. Inspired by Kappia, he vowed to report any chimps he discovered being sold or kept. And on the ride home, Ali said that he’d let any “white people” in his taxi know that he could take them to see (not buy) the chimps – just a 20 minute drive from the capital city of Freetown.

Back in the US, I’ve taken note of the Captive Primate Safety Act that has languished in Congress since 2007. It seeks to protect monkeys, chimps and other primates from the exotic pet trade in the US. The Humane Society suggests that people urge their legislators to support the act when it is reintroduced next year.

Kappia managed to convince rebels notorious for rape, amputations, and other crimes against humanity to leave the chimps alone. So when he asked me why our civil society continues to allow chimp pets and promotes chimps as entertainment despite the harm that then befalls our closest cousins, I felt lame answering, because we think it’s funny.

1. Kabasawa, Asami. 2009. African Study Monographs. “The Current State of the Chimpanzee Pet Trade in Sierra Leone.”