Into Wild: Documenting Former Lab Chimps

The opening sequence of Blood Island might as well be the start of the next film in the Planet of the Apes franchise. The camera swoops toward the shore of a lush island, hovers over an abandoned laboratory, and then cuts to a shot of a chimpanzee staring out of a chain-link cage. Ominous music plays in the background. But Blood Island isn’t science fiction-it’s the true story of a group of chimpanzees subjected to decades of medical testing then abandoned on a series of islands in an estuary near the coast of Liberia.

The chimps were used for hepatitis B vaccine testing by the New York Blood Center (NYBC) from 1974 until 2005. The 66 chimps, unfit to survive in the wild, “weren’t being fed sufficiently and were in pretty poor shape,” says Blood Island’s creator Lindsey Parietti (CAS’07, COM’07), who earned degrees in journalism and political science from Boston University’s College of Communication and College of Arts & Sciences in journalism and political science. Her original mission was to create a film that would help the ongoing campaign to get NYBC to support the abandoned chimps. (The center agreed to provide $6 million for their care while Parietti was editing the film.)

The film follows a group of volunteers, including former lab employees, dedicated to caring for the starving chimps. Joseph Thomas had worked in the lab for nearly 30 years. In that role, he helped researchers tranquilize chimpanzees and infect them with hepatitis B; one chimp was tranquilized more than 400 times. The first time Thomas appears on-screen, he hides his face in his hands as he describes the job. “They used to hate me,” he says of the chimpanzees. But when NYBC ended its support of the chimps in 2015, Thomas stepped in and began coordinating daily trips to the islands to feed them.

Joseph Thomas working with a chimpanzee.
The volunteers helping the chimps are led by former lab worker Joseph Thomas. Photo from Blood Island

It took time for him to earn the chimps’ trust. In a still image from a couple of years earlier, the chimps, skinny from starvation, snarl at the camera. But, as Parietti discovered by following Thomas and the other volunteers on a feeding trip to the islands, a lot has changed since then.

“When the feeding boat pulls up, the chimps come out, get their food, and sit around for maybe 20 minutes,” she says. “So I only had a few minutes to get the shots I needed.” Parietti says wildlife filmmaking is notoriously challenging, with some projects requiring up to five hours of footage to produce one edited minute of a film. She didn’t have that luxury-she had two days in Liberia.

Making the most of that time, Parietti captured scenes of the chimps emerging from the forest and wading into the water to greet the boat, reaching out for fruit and rice balls, then sprinting across the beach and splashing playfully in the water. In one intimate moment, Thomas interacts with a chimpanzee, gently patting its head. They have come a long way from the lab.

“The thing that surprises you when you see chimpanzees closely, which I hadn’t before, is how you make this connection with them,” Parietti says. “You can just envision them as people because they’re so like us in all their gestures, behaviors, and the way they look you in the eyes. It changes the way that you see animals.”

Blood Island won the 2018 British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Student Film Award for Documentary. Parietti has spent the past year developing the 12-minute film into a multiepisode series for the BBC. The job is a filmmaker’s dream-but Parietti didn’t start her career behind the camera.

After a short stint as a statehouse reporter in Boston following graduation, Parietti pursued her interest in the Middle East by moving to Egypt, where she worked for a series of publications, as well as for Reuters and the Associated Press. She was working for the English-language edition of Al-Masry Al-Youm, a Cairo daily, when the Egyptian revolution began in 2011. Parietti could see firsthand how the government was using media to misinform the public, like airing old images of empty streets, where thousands of people were actually protesting.

A team of volunteers in a boat help chimpanzees along a shoreline.
“West African chimpanzees have declined 80 percent in the past 25 years and all chimps are endangered,” says Parietti. Photo from Blood Island

Parietti began recording with her iPhone in addition to filing stories. “Video became an essential way of documenting what was really happening,” she says. “Many more people can access a video than read an article in English.”

Following the protests, after hundreds had been arrested or killed, Parietti found reporting on politics increasingly difficult-so she turned to another topic of interest: the environment. “I’ve always been interested in undercovered stories and the natural world,” she says. With her focus shifting and her newfound interest in video, Parietti also began thinking about a larger career change: “I wanted to combine journalism with really beautiful wildlife films to make an impact on environmental issues.”

In 2016, Parietti moved to Bristol, England, to study wildlife filmmaking at the University of the West of England. For a journalist looking to break into the field, the move held the potential of opening some valuable doors. Bristol is considered the hub of the wildlife film industry and is home to the BBC Natural History Unit, renowned for shows like Blue Planet and Planet Earth.

Needing to produce a film for her master’s thesis, Parietti was in search of a topic when she heard about the abandoned chimps in Liberia. “I started looking into it and just kept finding more and more things about the story that were completely unbelievable, but true.”

She hopes Blood Island and her new series change the way viewers see chimps-just as filming them did for her. “West African chimpanzees have declined 80 percent in the past 25 years and all chimps are endangered,” she says. “What a loss it would be if we let our closest living relatives go extinct in our lifetimes.”

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