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On Her Terms: Chimpanzee Gets a Visit from Former Research Lab Caretaker

Kitty, the chimpanzee, meets Dr. Struthers, her one-time caretaker at the Coulston Foundation laboratory.

A touching reunion occurred at the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch in April 2006, when the rescuer of one the ranch’s resident chimpanzees, Kitty, returned to visit her after nine years. Elaine Struthers, Ph.D., had previously cared for Kitty for a decade, but they had not seen each other since June of 1997.

Looking back: Nim needed a companion

In April of 1997, the ranch was hoping to find a female chimpanzee in need of rescue, who could be a companion for Nim Chimpsky. Famous for his ability to use sign language, Nim had recently lost his longtime companion, Sally Jones, who had been saved from a life in the circus. Sharing many of the same mental and physiological needs as human beings, it was no surprise that Nim displayed signs of depression, such as lethargy and loss of appetite, after Sally’s death.

One of the inquiries was made to the Coulston Foundation Chimpanzee Project in New Mexico. This now defunct facility bred chimpanzees for research and conducted experiments on them to test the development of vaccines for hepatitis. Dr. Struthers, the Director of Behavioral Sciences at that time, was interested in finding a new home for Kitty.

Kitty had been a long-time resident of the breeding colony at Coulston. She was acquired in 1972 from an animal dealer at the age of 10, but her exact origin remains unclear. In a report to Coulston describing Kitty’s opportunity to join Nim at the Black Beauty Ranch, Dr. Struthers wrote, “It is probable that Kitty was a wild-born chimpanzee, but this cannot presently be confirmed. Unfortunately, her history prior to age 10 is a mystery.”

The report also reveals that Kitty had not been used in or exposed to any forms of hepatitis studies. She had, instead, been a “breeder” chimp, selected to produce offspring for Coulston’s research projects. Ironically, due to her competent and caring mothering skills, she was forced to give birth and then, only briefly, cared for her babies, repeatedly grieving for her young as she suffered the trauma of each one being removed from her. The report further describes the paradox: Kitty had “the nurturing traits necessary to bond well with a companion. She was an excellent aunt providing companionship to other females with offspring and had no history of being overtly aggressive with humans.” Of 14 pregnancies Kitty was allowed to rear four offspring herself, including one set of twins. One of her sons, Dar es Salaam, now lives at the Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute, a sanctuary program for chimps who know sign language.

“Of all the chimpanzees I knew at Coulston, Kitty was the one I most wanted to place in a sanctuary,” said Dr. Struthers during her visit. “She was getting older and would soon be removed from the breeding program. It was only a matter of time before she would have been taken for hepatitis studies.” Kitty’s caretakers were very fond of her as she had a bright, affectionate and patient demeanor. Also she was a good mother and liked to play with intricate toys. She even developed the skill of trading objects in order to get something she wanted.

The next step in the sanctuary selection process was Dr. Struthers’ trip to the ranch to observe Nim and assess the suitability of Kitty and him living together. After two days, Dr. Struthers found Nim to be sedate and playful, even-tempered and suffering from loneliness. His preoccupation with toys and interest in playing with mechanical items made her think even more that Kitty was an ideal match for him.

Kitty leaves the research facility behind - forever

The Coulston Foundation agreed to place Kitty at the Black Beauty Ranch as a permanent companion for Nim. At dawn on June 3, 1997, Dr. Struthers and Kitty set out for the ranch. They arrived at dusk the same day, and Kitty spent her first night in her new home.

Nim and Kitty were initially placed in separate quarters but in full sight of each other. They indicated an immediate affinity by showing no aggression at any time during the 14 hours they were in separate enclosures, divided only by mesh. They both attempted to open the door between them. One of Nim’s former instructors from the American Sign Language institute, Bob Ingersoll, was also present for the introduction and interpreted Nim’s gestures toward the door between he and Kitty as, “Hurry, hurry, open there!” The door was opened, and they immediately began to interact positively.

The two remained compatible, and later that month two more chimpanzee companions, Midge and Lulu, were rescued and introduced to the ranch. The four lived peacefully together until Nim died suddenly of heart problems on March 10, 2000, at the age of 26. Kitty, Midge and Lulu continue their lives together at the ranch, where they presently enjoy a large new outdoor enclosure.

Renewing the bond

When Dr. Struthers arrived to visit Kitty, no one knew how the chimp might react. As Dr. Struthers spoke to Kitty, she sat with her back to Dr. Struthers, demonstrating not only that she remembered their relationship but also that she was disappointed in Dr. Struthers’ long absence. Soon, however, she warmed up, and they spent a few hours together, with Kitty leaning against the enclosure’s wall so that Dr. Struthers could touch and groom her. Dr. Struthers brought her a new toy, which she held close. Kitty was very relaxed and stayed as near to Dr. Struthers as possible. The relationship and trust they had shared years ago was evident.

It is common knowledge that chimpanzees feel many of the same emotions humans feel. Kitty had obviously felt loss and grief when her babies were repeatedly taken away from her to be used in research, and she felt joy and comfort seeing the familiar face of Dr. Struthers. Watching Dr. Struthers say goodbye to Kitty, staff at the ranch sensed the anguish of the separation and hoped that another reunion would happen before another nine years pass.

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Posted June 26, 2006