Primate Conservation Limelight
Jenny Desmond has dedicated her life to caring for and protecting chimpanzees through Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue & Protection, an organization she and her husband founded in 2016. Currently, the sanctuary is home to over 40 orphaned Western chimpanzees, all of whom will spend the rest of their lives in the care of LCRP.
Jenny spoke to New England Primate Conservancy from the sanctuary, in between her days managing the sanctuary and its growing staff and her nights as surrogate mother to the LCRP chimpanzees.
Title: Co-founder, Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue & Protection
Country of origin: United States
What was the first primate you saw in the wild?
Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus). I encountered them while on a backpacking honeymoon trip with my husband. It was supposed to be for a year, but it ended up being a lifetime!
Where are you from originally? Where did you grow up?
I was born and grew up in Southern California, Manhattan Beach. It’s an incredible place and I still have so many wonderful friends and connections there. However, my U.S. home is now Colorado, where we moved when I was a senior in high school. While that move could have been incredibly devastating at such an important time in my life, it was the best thing that has ever happened to me. My very best and longest friends are in Colorado and are an incredibly huge part of my (and my husband, Jimmy’s) life today.
How did you begin in the field of primate conservation?
I think I’ve always been destined to do this. My earliest memory is of the day my parents and I went to pick up my first dog. I was only a year old, but that day remains a vivid memory. It was a profound moment in time and I think my passion and love of animals began then and there. My parents were not pet people, but they were so supportive of my love of animals and allowed animals in our home. It seems I was always in the role of rescuing animals—injured birds, ducklings, squirrels, rabbits…
As a young adult, it seemed my options for working with animals were limited. I’m not a science person, so becoming a veterinarian wasn’t an option and I wasn’t interested in working in zoos. I didn’t see where I could fit in, so I gave up on the idea of working with animals for a while. I earned my master’s in social work and turned my energy to a career in sales, marketing, and fundraising.
It wasn’t until Jimmy and I began working with orangutans in Borneo that I found my calling in the world of wildlife rescue, rehab, and conservation. Later, in our work with the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre and the Jane Goodall Institute, I began caring for Matooke, a traumatized and orphaned chimp. Having him as a surrogate child in our home 24/7, working to get him through such great and intense trauma, and integrating him into a permanent if makeshift chimpanzee family, made the work even more personal.
What has been the proudest moment of your career thus far? If not proudest, perhaps you could tell us about your most memorable?
I can’t say they are necessarily proud moments, as I don’t take credit for many of the most profound things that have happened in my life, but gosh the moments that stand out and bring me joy include being a role model to my nieces: Diana, who nominated me as her hero this year; and Leigh, who created her environmental campaign, Project 5 Billion.
I’m also awed by the amazing transformations of the individuals coming into our care. These chimpanzees arrive orphaned, weak, traumatized, and tortured, yet are able to laugh and find happiness again. The story of Johnny, who we found chained to a tree (for ten years) inspires me. He is now vibrant and vivacious and absolutely loves to laugh. Most remarkably, he trusts us implicitly. I am honored to be trusted and so profoundly loved by all these people (chimps, my nieces, and so many more) who choose to give me that gift.
In my protection and conservation work, this year was such a milestone for us as we saw a turn in the system. Formerly, we were the initiators of rescues and confiscations, making reports and begging for help in carrying out the law—but now we are being contacted by the authorities to assist in their desire to conduct confiscations, investigations, arrests, and prosecutions. It is a slow process and we have a long way to go, but change is happening.
Looking toward the future of primate conservation, what makes you most hopeful? What makes you most concerned?
My worry is the rapid rate at which devastation is happening. We have to move fast—very fast. There is no time to delay. And personally, I worry relentlessly about whether I will be able to do right by all those for whom I am responsible.
My reason for hope is that each and every day I see good—in humans, events, individuals of diverse species, communities, friends, and moments. The good is much more powerful than the bad. It just is. It’s hard to maintain that optimism sometimes, but we must. We have to ask ourselves this: what is the alternative? Do we give up? Do we stop trying? Absolutely not. That is not an option.
ABOUT LIBERIA CHIMPANZEE RESCUE & PROTECTION
Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue & Protection is the first and only chimpanzee sanctuary and conservation center in Liberia, rescuing chimpanzees who are victims of the illegal bushmeat and pet trades. LCRP is rescuing chimpanzees today and driving change for tomorrow.
The sanctuary currently cares for over 70 chimpanzees, most of whom are under five years old—and given this remarkable chance at a healthy and happy life, will live up to 60 years in the sanctuary’s care.
All of LCRP’s chimpanzee family members are orphans whose mothers and other family members were killed to be eaten; the young chimps were kept alive to be sold into the local and international pet trade.
LCRP is a Liberian NGO, collaborating with local and international partners in caring for current chimpanzee residents and the development of long-term strategies to combat the illegal trade of chimpanzees and other protected wildlife.
Learn more about and support LPRC here: Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue