By Sydney Preston
Jogging towards one of the twelve islands at Save the Chimps sanctuary, Dr. Andrew Halloran threw his arms out wide and yelled “September! Come here!” Halloran turned around to the group with a huge smile plastered on his face as a 43-year-old chimpanzee named September came towards him.
September sat in the grass looking at Halloran as she munched on a sweet potato. As he talked to her, September picked a particularly tall blade of grass and gifted it to Halloran. After he thanked her, September happily went back to her sweet potato.
September was rescued by Save the Chimps in 2002 and is happy and thriving on her island with her new friends.
Save the Chimps is a sanctuary in Fort Pierce, Florida dedicated to rescuing Chimpanzees from all over the world and giving them a place where they can live a happy and healthy life.
The organization got international attention from a viral video of Vanilla the chimp being freed and seeing the sky for the very first time. The video captured hearts all over the world. It is something Flagler College alum, Andrew Halloran has been hoping for during his career.
Vanilla the chimp was bred in a biomedical research lab in New York. The first years of her life were dedicated to invasive procedures due to chimpanzees sharing 98 percent of their DNA with humans.
At the age of 28, Vanilla met Halloran and the rest of the staff at Save the Chimps. She was rescued from a shutdown facility in California and brought to her forever home at the Florida sanctuary.
For Halloran it’s not about the success of the video, it is about the opportunity to get people to understand that all living beings are important, no matter the species.
“All of us that worked here have 225 moments not captured on camera that are just as special as what happened in Vanilla’s video. They all had to make that step through the door onto the island,” Halloran said.
Each individual Chimp has their own unique story and there are many Chimps still out in the world in horrid conditions that have not been able to experience life.
How Halloran’s career started
Vanilla’s viral video resulted in Dr. Halloran being put in the spotlight. However, he was once in the same position as most college students all over the world.
For the Flagler College alum, finding his passion and going for it has improved not only his quality of life, but also the lives of over 200 Chimpanzees.
The post-college experience for Halloran was a time of questions and trial and error. Following his long-term passions was difficult at first but ultimately led to him being the Director of Chimpanzee Behavior and Care at Save the Chimps.
Double majoring in Philosophy and Theater, Halloran earned his degree and began asking himself the age-old question: What do I do with this?
“When I was 18, I was very high-minded that you go into school and study what you’re interested in, not what was going to get you a job,” Halloran said. “I am so glad I did that.”
His time at Flagler College was very special and helped him explore his love of animals.
“I had a band at Flagler and all the songs we wrote were little stories about animals. Every paper I wrote was about animals,” he said. “I always knew I wanted to work with them, I just didn’t really know how to do that.”
Halloran began to intern at Zoo Atlanta working with Golden Lion Tamarins, a type of ape. From there he became a zoo keeper.
After falling in love with apes, specifically Chimps, Halloran went to grad school at Florida Atlantic University to study Biological Anthropology.
Halloran has made his younger self proud with all of his accomplishments. He is now a published author of two books about chimps. One of his novels, Lion Shaped Mountain, is about what he learned during his work in Sierra Leone, Africa.
Annually Halloran travels to Sierra Leone to continue the work he founded there. The Tonkolili Chimpanzee Project is Halloran’s way of “mitigating conflicts between humans and chimpanzees through sustainable economic empowerment.”
He had many jobs in the ecology industry but when he discovered the position for Save the Chimps, he went after it immediately.
“I am extremely overly-specialized to do exactly one job and it’s the job that I currently have,” he said.
A chance for chimps to thrive
Chimps are most often needing to be rescued from one of three places: the entertainment industry, laboratories, and personal ownerships. In these types of situations, the chimps are not able to have any sort of freedom of choice.
Halloran goes to the chimps, wherever they are in the world, and performs behavioral assessments on them to see where they would best thrive, whether that be at the sanctuary or a good accredited zoo.
Pride radiates off of Halloran as he explains how chimps are adapting.
“For us, what thriving really means is chimpanzees able to live their lives to the fullest. For a chimp, like a human, they need a rich social environment where they can choose who they want to be around, when they want to eat, where they want to go. It’s so important for chimpanzees to have a cognitive stimulating area,” Halloran said.
Halloran relates this back to the viral video of Vanilla.
“My favorite part of that video is the other chimpanzee in the background. His name is Dwight and he is the alpha of the group that Vanilla joined,” Halloran said. “She hugs him, then looks at the sky in awe and then immediately goes back to Dwight for another hug. Having him there helped her make that first step.”
Chimps live to be around 50-60 years old, so making sure that a chimp would be happy and healthy in the sanctuary for the remainder of their lives is extremely important.
Everyone is very serious about how the sanctuary is run. Jane Goodall, best known for her extraordinary work with primates, is even on the Save the Chimps board.
A little over twenty years ago the U.S. government was offering a grant to sanctuaries in the nation. Save the Chimps ultimately decided against using the grant because the government would be legally allowed to take the chimps at any time and they were not going to let that happen.
The entire sanctuary is funded by donations and is the world’s largest privately funded sanctuary for chimpanzees.
Rescuing the chimps
Halloran’s work performing behavioral assessments on chimps began to get attention in the ecology industry.
On a Thursday in 2022, he got a phone call from an attorney for PETA asking him to rescue a chimp named Tonka that had made national news.
Tonka was an entrainment chimp who was labeled as missing by the chimps owner. Sensing that something was off Tonka’s former co-star, Alan Cumming, most noticeable from his X-Men films, posted a $20,000 reward for information on Tonka’s where-a-bouts.
Tonka was being held in the basement of the owner’s house, where the owner was threatening to euthanize him.
“We rented a big van and put a transport box in it. I drove through the night to Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri to get Tonka,” Halloran said.
It can be very stressful for chimps to be transported, Halloran said.
“We can give them medication to help with the stress but most of the time we have staff sit with the Chimps while they are being transported, they give them treats, hangout with them and talk to them.”
Save the Chimps did not set out to be a zoo, the Chimps are not exhibited or used for profit. The organization cares deeply for every single one of the 225 Chimps that are living in the sanctuary.
Halloran said the attention that is currently being given to the viral Vanilla video could help lead the world to understanding the true importance of all species.
“I think Save the Chimps can provide a service to chimps and in turn to other animals. Jane Goodall said that chimpanzees are kind of the door-opening species. They are like humans so we should care about them. Well, chimps aren’t that different from gorillas so we should care about the Gorillas. Then Gorillas aren’t that different from another species and so on and so forth,” said Halloran.
Save the Chimps is funded entirely on private donation, if interested in helping Save the Chimps, grow and rescue more Chimps in the world, go to their website. Save the Chimps.