If anyone had ever told me that one day I would admire a chimpanzee for facing adversity, I would have thought they were crazy. Yet, every day I come to work at the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, I am amazed by a 54-year-old chimpanzee named Lulu Belle. She has overcome more challenges than most of us will face in a lifetime. She has done it gracefully and without the self-deprecating behavior that most of us exhibit.
Lulu Belle, or Lulu for short, was born around 1963. We don’t know her exact age because the laboratory records only list her as “born in the wild” and she first shows up in their records as a “young adult”. She was used in hepatitis B vaccine trials and on live virus studies at the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP.) Between the years of 1985-1996, she endured 114 blood draws, 35 liver biopsies, and 52 tests for Tuberculosis.
Finally retired at the age of 34, Lulu came to live at the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, in Murchison, Texas on June 20, 1997. She spent the next 20 years living a peaceful life of retirement with her other chimpanzee companions.
Lulu lived carefree until April 2012 when she suffered her first of several strokes. She lost 100 percent mobility on the right side of her body and could not initially walk or climb. An MRI confirmed the stroke and blood tests confirmed diabetes, the cause of her strokes. Her diet was dramatically changed to reduce the amount of sugar and carbohydrates. She needed to begin an injectable insulin regimen immediately to control her blood glucose levels and a physical therapy program to help her regain her lost mobility. Since it wasn’t safe to enter into the same enclosure with a 150-pound wild and potentially dangerous animal, staff used operant conditioning, specifically, positive reinforcement training, to help with these issues.
Positive reinforcement training, PRT, works by giving a motivating item to the animal after the desired behavior is exhibited, making the behavior more likely to happen in the future. By asking Lulu to perform an event – presenting her arm to the cage bars for an insulin injection – and rewarding that behavior with a special treat, Lulu was quickly trained for twice-daily insulin injections.
Her care staff asked Lulu to present and move various parts of her body in an effort to gain mobility to the affected areas. Additionally, she quickly learned to present her finger through the bars to check her blood glucose levels once a day.
Through all of this, Lulu never seemed to be affected by her perceived “hardship.” The fact that she had difficulty climbing, walking or even sitting up, never seemed to bother her. We never, not once, saw any signs of frustration from this amazing chimpanzee. She did all that was asked of her, participated in every physical therapy session, and took injectable insulin from us not knowing that we were trying to save her life. She did it because we asked her to and because we gave her a special treat when completed.
After months of diet control, physical therapy, and careful monitoring, Lulu’s blood glucose levels stabilized and she was weaned off insulin when it was no longer necessary. She also regained approximately 80 percent of her mobility.
But her training didn’t stop there. Her lead caregiver, Rebecca Woodward, continues to work on additional training for medical procedures. The most important procedures for her continued well-being are blood draws, blood pressure monitoring, and cardiac ultrasound readings. All of these must be performed without sedation since Lulu is considered high risk for any anesthetic event because of her past strokes. Training for these behaviors allows us to treat her medically without invasive sedations and project trends in her cardiac health that could not be monitored otherwise. All of these procedures are done with the staff safely outside of the enclosure and Lulu fully awake. Lulu allows us to perform these procedures as the behaviors are, by the nature of PRT, voluntary.
With her training, Lulu has become one of the first chimpanzees in a sanctuary environment to be trained for a voluntary blood draw. According to the Great Ape Heart Project, she is also the first chimpanzee ever to give a voluntary blood pressure reading from her finger, a behavior she learned in only two training sessions!
Lulu is an amazing individual and she teaches us life lessons on a daily basis. We cannot take credit for her accomplishments. She demonstrates that no matter what life throws at you, overcoming obstacles is just another bump in the road.
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The 1,400 acre Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch — operated by The Fund for Animals in partnership with The Humane Society of the United States – is America’s largest and most diverse animal sanctuary. This world-renowned animal sanctuary in Murchison, Texas is a permanent haven to more than 900 domestic and exotic animals rescued from research laboratories, circuses, zoos, captive hunting operations, factory farming, and government round-ups. The Ranch is not a zoo but is now open to the public on a limited basis for small, pre-scheduled, guided tours to respect the peace and privacy of the animals. Guests tour the property on a bus so the animals do not even know they are being observed. To learn more, visit here.
All Image Source: Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch