The Elders

According to available information, over one-third of the chimpanzees held in U.S. laboratories are elderly (i.e., a male chimpanzee 25 years or older or a female 30 years or older). Many have spent their entire lives in a lab enduring multiple experiments and procedures and/or being repeatedly “bred” to make more babies for research. Stated by Dr. Theodora Capaldo, director of Project R&R:

These chimpanzees have been used by science for decades — some in the worst experiments imaginable. They deserve to spend their remaining years in the safety and dignity of sanctuary.

Since the launch of Project R&R’s campaign in 2006, we have learned more about what several of the nation’s oldest chimpanzees have endured—beginning in infancy in the 1950s.

Decades in labs

  • Wenka (Lab ID #170), Reba (Lab ID#190), Boka (Lab ID #200), and Jenda (Lab ID #188) were all born in the 1950's in the first dedicated chimpanzee lab in Orange Park, Florida, predecessor to the Yerkes National Primate Research Center (Yerkes) in Atlanta, Georgia. Wenka is the only surviving member of the original four.
  • Some of these individuals were used in psychological research when they were just infants and toddlers; Jenda, Reba, and Boka were used as toddlers in isolation studies. Jenda was also used in drug and alcohol studies. 
  • By 1962, the Florida lab had 77 chimpanzees: 31 adults, 19 nursery animals, and 29 youngsters. In 1965, the entire colony was moved to Atlanta, which is presumably where Wenka has been ever since. (Reba, Boka, and Jenda died at Yerkes according to Project R&R sources.)
  • During the 1960s and 1970s, Yerkes' chimpanzee research focused on sexual behavior and reproductive processes, as detailed in the Wiseman film Primate, as well as drug and alcohol studies, blood typing, and immunology.

Wenka, now over 60, still held at Yerkes

  • Wenka was born at the Orange Park lab on May 21, 1954. Her parents were Web and Banka. Web (Wenka's father) was born at Orange Park on January 16, 1943. Web's mother was Wendy, one of the first of four chimpanzees that Dr. Robert Yerkes bought from an animal dealer in Africa. Banka (Wenka’s mother) was born on January 28, 1941 at Orange Park and died when she was mistakenly poisoned on September 25, 1956.
  • Early on, Wenka was sold as a "pet," but was later returned to the Orange Park lab as a three-year-old on April 19, 1957. It was unusual for her to have survived that trauma since many cross-reared infants die when they are removed from their human families.
  • When Wenka was 15, she gave birth to Jama on July 6, 1968. Jama was the first chimpanzee known to be born with Down Syndrome. A 1969 Yerkes newsletter noted “Wenka and Franz will be encouraged to mate again in an attempt to produce another mongoloid offspring. An even greater tour de force would be the breeding of Jama herself and the rearing of a dynasty of mongoloid chimps for scientific research.” This did not happen since Baby Jama died during an operation to try to fix a heart problem. She was 17 months old.
  • Wenka and Franz did have more children together, none of whom had Down Syndrome. On August 10, 1974, they had a son, Ford. On February 19, 1977, they had a daughter, Pamela. Wenka may have had more children but lab records beyond this date are difficult to access.
  • According to Project R&R sources, Wenka was used in alcohol and oral contraceptive studies and is still being used in aging and cognition studies. Her lab records are privately held so it is difficult to uncover all the research she may have been involved in.
  • Wenka turns 64 on May 21, 2018. According to information obtained in 2012, she reportedly lives at Yerkes Main Center with outdoor access to a small concrete area.

Deprivation studies

The period following Dr. Yerkes’ retirement in 1942, as director of the Yale Laboratories of Primate Biology, was a grim one for the chimpanzees at the Orange Park lab—especially for several elders including Wenka.

In psychology, behaviorism was on the rise and researchers were developing new deprivation studies. The initial experiments involved isolating the nursery infants, one individual in a crib or cage, until they were two or three years old. They could see and hear each other, but did not have bodily contact.

According to one annual report, when compared with mother-raised infants or infants raised in home environments, the isolated infants were “jittery and fearful.” The report noted:

…in contrast to the extreme—one is tempted to say pathological—timidity of the Nursery infant, the mother-raised young is relative calm and poised, having a comparatively serene existence.

The Nursery infants develop…thumb-sucking, clinging to a piece of cloth, self-grasping (hand holding tightly to the thighs, making a sucking noise with the lips, shading the eyes with one hand, lying prone and rubbing against the floor, swaying back and forth in upright position from one foot to another in the same spot.

From the late 1940s and into the 1960s, the infant experiments involved greater levels of deprivation—including vision studies which kept infants in complete darkness for up to 33 months. One infant had manual and foot manipulation restricted by having plastic tubes placed on his hands and feet for more than two years.

Reba, Boka, and the Davenport experiments

Reba and Boka (now deceased) were used in Davenport’s “Isolation” program when they were three to four years old.

In 1957, Richard K. Davenport began working on the nursery infants to study conditions of early environments on later development. The infants used in his research had five different early environmental conditions:

  1. Box-like crib with blank walls, 12 hours light/12 hours dark, no human contact.
  2. Same, with switches and levers to manipulate.
  3. Also socially isolated but had colors, finger paintings, and movies displayed on one wall of the crib.
  4. Two pairs were allowed to have contact with animals in adjacent crib, could see and touch them.
  5. Three—who were African-born chimpanzees who spent their early lives with the mothers—were allowed to interact freely with each other and caretakers, who handled and “disciplined them.”

Boka was the love interest and cagemate of Clint—the now-deceased chimpanzee used for the chimpanzee genome project.

Jenda at Yerkes:

  • Jenda (now deceased) was raised for the first 21 months of her life under special conditions that severely restricted her environment and social experience.
  • Jenda was also used in experiments by one of Harry Harlow’s prodigies, William Mason. (Read more about the experiments conducted by Harlow in Maternal Deprivation.)
  • A 1962 record shows that Jenda was used in drug experiments when she was only four years old with Drs. Mason, Berkston, and Fitzgerald.
  • Another record from December 1962 indicates that she was also used in one of Frances L. Fitzgerald drug experiments which included tests involving “stimulants, depressants, and tranquilizers,” as well as “alcohol.”
  • Jenda was born at Orange Park in February 1958. Jenda’s parents were Jent and Soda. Jent was born in Orange Park in 1942. Soda was brought from Africa in June 1930 at approximately age three. Jenda’s paternal grandparents were Jack and Bentia. Jack was a gift from Madam Abreu’s chimpanzee colony in Cuba. He was born around 1920 and arrived in Orange Park in May 1931. Bentia was brought over from Africa in 1930 at approximately four years of age.

Information on other chimpanzee elders:

Project R&R sources have records indicating:

  • Flo (Lab ID #775) was born September 29, 1957. She arrived at the Coulston Foundation in 1972 from a company called IAE. She gave birth to four children: Ann, Jojo, Nate, and Noella. All but Jojo are dead. Both Jojo and Flo are living at the Alamogordo Primate Facility (formerly Coulston).
  • Guy (Lab ID #197; now deceased) was born May 13, 1959. He arrived at Coulston on May 13, 1963 from Asiatic Imports. He has no recorded children. Past records seem to indicate that he was loaned to the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP) at one time, and then returned. He died at Alamogordo in 2011.

Project R&R is committed to working for the Elders’ immediate release into permanent retirement, so that these individuals who have spent most or all of their lives in laboratories can enjoy the relative freedoms sanctuaries can provide—including blankets, fresh air, sunshine, enrichment, and peace—for whatever time they have left. You can help us change their fate and make their remaining years a life of dignity and protection in sanctuary by clicking here to sign onto the Project R&R petition demanding their immediate release from the laboratories that currently hold them.

Project R&R also welcomes any additional historical or current information on Wenka and the other elder chimpanzees.


Dr. Lori Gruen, a professor of philosophy at Wesleyan University who has written a book on chimpanzees in captivity in the United States, provided additional details about Wenka’s early life and some of the history of the other elder chimpanzees.

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