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Louie’s story

By Jake Davis

The narrative of our client Louie’s life unfolds the same way the narratives of so many exploited nonhuman animals do: in the pages of inspection reports authored by the Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture. 

In November of 2023, the NhRP received nearly 700 pages of records in response to a Freedom of Information Act request we submitted to the USDA in May of 2023 regarding the DeYoung Family Zoo–a miserable roadside zoo in Michigan I personally visited in August of 2023 and wrote about in this affidavit. You can read the USDA records here and here.

The first report that mentions Louie is from 2015. At that time, Louie was five years and old and already being kept in solitary confinement. 

In the 2015 report, the reader learns that the DeYoung Family Zoo has “owned” Louie since he was six weeks old. No mention is made of where Louie was born, who his parents were, or (as online photos and videos show) that the DeYoung Family Zoo kept Louie on a leash and used him in photo opportunities and interactions with zoo patrons until he was at least two.

The second report that mentions Louie is from 2016. By this point, the zoo had acquired another chimpanzee, but Louie was kept separate from him because of behavioral issues that shouldn’t have been surprising considering Louie’s forced isolation.

In 2017, we learn through an animal welfare complaint filed by an unknown individual that Louie was still allegedly being housed “alone, in a small space, and unable to socialize with other animals.” The complaint describes how Louie’s cage was padded with concrete and that he was exhibiting repetitive, stereotypical behavior (a sign of deep psychological stress caused by captivity). APHIS reported that it couldn’t confirm the allegations during the time of its inspection and subsequently surmised that Louie was in good health. 

In 2018, APHIS stated that Louie “is still singularly housed” but that he had “access to a room inside the [zoo] owner’s home.” As chimpanzee experts state in their affidavits and declarations on behalf of our chimpanzee clients, humans are no substitute for the rich social lives chimpanzees share with members of their own species, but unsurprisingly, APHIS appears to have accepted a room in a human home as such a substitute. 

The 2018 report also contains a paragraph titled “Unsocialized Chimpanzee,” which focuses on Louie not getting along with other chimpanzees. The zoo’s apparent solution for helping Louie was governed by the same backward logic the captive animal industry always employs––bring even more members of a species into an impoverished environment to try to ameliorate the suffering of the nonhuman animal who’s isolated. 

A photo of chimpanzees in what appears to be a cement-and-chain-link outdoor housing structure at the DeYoung Family Zoo in Michigan.
Chimpanzees in what appears to be a cement-and-chain-link outdoor housing structure at the DeYoung Family Zoo in Michigan.

In 2021, APHIS reported that all the chimpanzees at the DeYoung Family Zoo (including an additional five chimpanzees the zoo had acquired) are “accounted for” and “appropriately being cared for in accordance with the Animal Welfare Act Standards.” As many NhRP supporters are aware, the Animal Welfare Act is farcical in how little it does for nonhuman animals. Essentially, as long as DeYoung Family Zoo is keeping the chimpanzees alive, the DeYoung Family Zoo is meeting these standards–no matter the injustice of the chimpanzees’ lives.

What’s perhaps most telling about these records is what they don’t include. Reading them, you’d never know that Louie, like all chimpanzees, is an autonomous being with an inner life, an individual perspective, his own preferences, and a psychologically painful history that deserves a complex accounting. This is because the USDA sees Louie as a “thing,” a commercial good, not a thinking, feeling being who can remember the past, feel trapped in the present, and imagine a future where he’s finally free. 

As far as available public records go, this is where Louie’s story, and the stories of all seven chimpanzees imprisoned in the DeYoung Family Zoo, leave off–for now. With your support, we’re fighting for the DeYoung Prisoners’ right to liberty and release to a sanctuary. With this right, the next chapter in their narratives will be completely different, and they’ll finally be free.

Our litigation to #FreeTheDeYoungPrisoners is our first lawsuit in Michigan. Learn more about their case on their client page.

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