Billy was raised to be a performer, but ended up as a laboratory specimen. The male chimpanzee was taught to clap his hands, blow kisses and perform handstands, but he was sold to a lab when he became difficult to manage. There, like many lab chimps, Billy was subjected to routine medical experimentation, including a liver biopsy every two weeks. The regular injections with dart guns eventually caused permanent nerve damage. And, he no longer has thumbs – he chewed them both off after waking from a procedure for which he was given no pain killers. But, Billy’s story doesn’t end here.
Gloria Grow, a Canadian woman in her forties, rescued him and 14 other chimpanzees from a lab at a U.S. university, bringing them to her farm on the south side of the St. Lawrence river. She and her chimps are the subject of Sanctuary, a one-hour one-off produced by Vancouver-based Sanctuary Films (a joint venture of Bravura Productions in Toronto and Chris Bruyere’s Vancouver-based Briar Patch Productions).
Doc-maker Bruce Martin of Bravura Productions recounts the shocking experience Grow underwent when she first went to the lab to see the chimps: ‘[The vet] took Gloria and her partner Richard [also a vet] into a trailer where there were seven or eight chimps spitting, yelling, screaming and making a huge din – very angry animals. He took them outside and said, ‘Those are your chimps and by the way they have HIV. Is that a problem?” Though Grow was still willing, her partner balked. But, after taking a second look at the dreadful conditions the animals were living in, he relented. At that point, Grow’s chimp sanctuary became a reality.
Grow had no experience with chimps, but she soon became friends with one of the best in the field – Jane Goodall. Martin says Goodall visited the sanctuary early on and recognized Grow’s intuitive approach to the animals. The famous chimp expert has been forthcoming with advice and encouragement ever since, and makes a point of visiting Grow whenever she is in North America. Martin says one of these visits will be included in the documentary.
Martin explains that while the film will address the lab experiences of the chimpanzees, the focus will be on their recovery at the sanctuary. ‘The amazing thing with these animals is that once they realize that they’ve found a place where they are loved, they very quickly turn around.’
Sanctuary, which has a budget of CND$250,000 (US$162,000), will be delivered at the end of August. Partners on board include Discovery Canada, TV Ontario, Canal D in Quebec, Access Alberta, Knowledge and the Saskatchewan Communications Network.