At their August 9th meeting, Fannin County Board of Commissioners discussed Project Chimps application to bring 80 chimpanzees to live in Project Chimps’ sanctuary in Fannin County. The chimpanzees are to arrive to sanctuary in groups of nine to ten over the next year. The Commissioners must approve Project Chimps’ application for exotic animals before the animals can arrive in Fannin County. According to Fannin County’s Wild and Exotic Animals Ordinance: “ In the event that the Fannin County Board of Commissioners determines that such a facility cannot be operated within Fannin County, Georgia, in a manner to insure the health, safety and well being of the citizens of this County, then the Board of Commissioners shall have the right to reject said application. The decision of the Board of Commissioners in any individual case, shall be final.”
The Commissioners did not vote against the Project Chimps’ exotic animal application; they voted to review the application at the next County Commissioners’ meeting on August 23rd at 6 pm in the Fannin County Courthouse.
Project Chimps is at the former Gorilla Haven facility which housed 1-4 male gorillas, most notably, Atlanta Zoo’s Willie B. Jr. and Jasiri. The gorillas are no longer there and the facility has been retro-fitted to house chimpanzees.
The Commissioners’ actions came as a great surprise to Fannin residents, Project Chimps and national organizations that have been pushing for the retirement of New Iberia Research Center’s chimpanzee population. New Iberia Research Center, operated by the University of Louisiana – Lafayette, currently houses the chimpanzees.
Project Chimps arrived at the Commissioners’ meeting expecting to give a presentation to the Commissioners before they voted on the application. Post-Commissioner Earl Johnson said he understood Project Chimps had obtained legal counsel. Sarah Baekler Davis, President and CEO of Project Chimps, stated that they had obtained David Ralston as a consultant, not as their attorney. David Ralston represents Georgia’s 7th District, which includes Fannin County, and is Speaker of the House for Georgia General Assembly. Chairman Simonds said, “I don’t know if we can vote on it yet.” Mr. Johnson then asked County Attorney Lynn Doss what the appropriate procedures would be for speaking with Project Chimps during the meeting. Ms. Doss confirmed that the Commissioners need to send comments her and she will pass the comments on Mr. Ralston. Post-Commissioner Larry Joe Sosebee stated he felt Project Chimps’ obtaining representation by Mr. Ralston was a push to get us to vote.
However, during Public Commentary and Commissioner’s Commentary, the Commissioners openly discussed Project Chimps with organization representatives and Fannin residents in attendance.
Project Chimps’ President and CEO, Sara Baekler Davis, spoke second during Public Comments. She did not give her prepared presentation. Ms. Baekler Davis did, though, give an overview of Project Chimps and how it impacts Fannin County. She spoke about safety measures in place and how the facility will provide jobs and educational opportunities for Fannin residents. She said that Project Chimps has been overwhelmed by public support from the community.
Ms. Baekler Davis said that before coming in front of the County Commissioner, she wanted to have her federal and state permits in place since the Commission could not vote on her application without the two permits. On July 8th, Project Chimps obtained the United States Department of Agriculture permit and on July 25, it obtained the Georgia Division of Natural Resources permit.
Chad Bowers, owner of Better Building Systems, Inc. in Blue Ridge. He is the General Contractor for Project Chimps. He stated that the organization has already brought $200,000 into his Fannin County business and he estimates around $200,000 more in the near future.
Fannin resident Jan Eaton spoke next. She pressured the Commissioners to be transparent about “what the big hold up is.” She stated that she had visited the “remarkable facility” and it is a “remarkable thing for the community.” She finished with, “What is the big problem?”
Next up was a neighbor of Project Chimps, Dawn di Lorenzo. Ms. Di Lorenzo lives on Loving Road, which is close to Project Chimps’ facility on Lowery Road. She said she is delighted the project will be in the community and she wasn’t aware there was any downside. Janice Hayes of the Cohutta Animal Clinic and Gary Steverson, owner of Blue Ridge Cotton Company, also spoke in favor of Project Chimps.
Next up was Mike Seres, Director of Chimpanzee Management at Project Chimps. He stated he has over 40 years’ experience re-socializing and integrating groups of chimpanzees. His last full-time position was for five years as Great Ape Behavioral Consultant at Kumamoto Sanctuary which is part of Kyoto University in Japan.
During the Commissioners’ Commentary, the Commissioners questioned Ms. Baekler Davis and also gave comments about the project, though they stated earlier in the meeting that they would not make public comment but pass all information through County Attorney Lynn Doss.
First off was Commission Chair Bill Simonds. The direction of his questions was about the long-term funding sources for Project Chimps. He said that the life span of chimpanzees is 40-60 years and that Project Chimps wants to bring 240 chimpanzees to Fannin County. Mr. Simonds said that it was one long commitment and in 40 years people in this room won’t be around to worry about it. Ms. Baekler Davis affirmed that the organization is not receiving any federal or state grants. However, the organization is receiving donations from private individuals and other non-profits and New Iberia Research Center is also contributing money as part of its contract to retire the chimps at the sanctuary.
Ms. Baekler-Davis also reminded the Commissioners about the timeline for arrival of all 240 chimpanzees. The chimpanzees will arrive in social groups of 9 to 10 animals at a time. The application is for 80 chimpanzees because that is what the facility can accommodate at this time. Later groups will move as the facility expands, which will take a total of five years. She also said that the chimpanzees must have health certification, which, according to federal regulations can only occur one-month prior to transportation from Louisiana to Georgia.
At the end of his comments about the application, Mr. Simonds stated that he did not want Fannin county residents to be stuck with caring for the chimpanzees because donations to Project Chimps ran out.
Post-Commissioner Larry Joe Sosebee was next. His line of questioning was about the health of the animals. First, he wanted to know if the chimpanzees are newly-arrived from Africa. Then he questioned about what kind of bio-medical research the chimpanzees were used for while they were at New Iberia Research Center. Ms. Baekler Davis said that to pass health inspection, which each animal must have before coming to Fannin County, a veterinarian must state that the animals are healthy and not carriers of disease communicable to humans. Also, the chimpanzees must have rabies, tetanus, pneumonia and tuberculosis vaccines before they can leave New Iberia. She said Project Chimps a letter from the attending veterinarian at New Iberia Research Center confirming the animals are free of communicable disease and have had required vaccinations. She reminded the Commissioners that the chimpanzees also have USDA and Georgia DNR permits.
Next, Post-Commissioner Earl Johnson “wanted to clear the air.” He said that this (Aug. 9th) evening was the first time he had received information about Project Chimps and he received it at 5:15, 45 minutes before the meeting. He said that the only communication that has been done was through County Attorney Lynn Doss and she doesn’t vote. He also doesn’t want his vote to be a knee-jerk reaction.
In balance to Mr. Johnson’s statements, FetchYourNews reports that in early May, news wire sources like the Associated Press carried stories about New Iberia Research Center’s chimpanzees moving to Fannin County. This was publicized by media outlets. Project Chimps met with Fannin County Emergency Management Agency in early summer to discuss safety at the facility. Project Chimps formally applied for the exotic animal permit on July 15, 2016. And, Project Chimps’ Open House on June 25th had over 100 attendees and was well-covered in local media.
Then, Mr. Johnson went on to list his concerns. First and foremost are his concerns about security; can chimpanzees escape the facility or uninvited humans or animals get in? He also wants to know if security barriers will hold up if a tree falls on them. Another concern is what the chimps were tested for and if this can pass to humans through birds or squirrels which will get into the open-air space. He stated that Robert Graham, Director of Fannin County Emergency Management Agency, should be involved in the decision. He said we should have started talking about this three months ago.
FetchYourNews reports that a formal announcement of Project Chimps was not made until early May 2016 because negotiations between Project Chimps and New Iberia Research Center had not yet been completed.
Finally, Mr. Simonds commented on Project Chimps again. He said, “We want anything that will benefit Fannin County, but we have to answer to taxpayers.” He also said that the Commissioners received two calls from residents living in My Mountain complaining that Project Chimps will cause their property value to go down. My Mountain borders the west side of the Project Chimps facility. He ended with, “We (the Commissioners) are not going to rush into anything.”
The Commissioners will reconsider the application at their August 23rd meeting.
This is the first in a series of articles FetchYourNews is writing about Project Chimps. In the next article, FetchYourNews interviews Sarah Baekler Davis, President and CEO of Project Chimps. Following articles will examine Commissioners worries about safety, health and funding in comparison to national data and Project Chimps’ facility.