Bruce Wagman’s decision to found a chimpanzee sanctuary
Published in 2022 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine on July 5, 2022
Yes, Bruce Wagman, an animal lover who practices animal law, has heard the jokes. “Occasionally I have to say to people, ‘Yes, that’s really my name,’” he says. “Especially when I’m doing dog cases.”
Wagman shares his home with three dogs and five cats, and at Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila, his entire practice focuses on animal law—he is the nation’s only lawyer at a major law firm who dedicates 100 percent of his focus to the area.
“It’s the greatest job in the world, and it’s the hardest job in the world,” Wagman says. “I spend a lot of time sitting at my desk crying because I have to review the mistreatment of animals to do the work I do. That’s the hardest part.”
While he fights to protect or rescue animals of all kinds, he’s worked numerous cases involving cruelty to chimpanzees in the entertainment industry and in other captive situations, like biomedical research. And after years of heartbreaking stories, he decided to do something radical.
In 2014, he and a partner traveled to New Iberia, Louisiana, where they approached the largest private laboratory for chimpanzees in America and asked them if they’d be willing to retire the animals. “It was one of these ideas like, ‘This will never work, but we’ve got to try,’” he says.
It worked. The testing facility agreed to release all the chimpanzees into their care. “Then we had to figure out what to do with them,” Wagman says. It didn’t take too long to find the perfect home: a 236-acre former gorilla sanctuary in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia that, eventually, could house all the lab chimps.
“We needed about $3 million to buy that property,” says Wagman, “and we got that in a majority donation from the Humane Society.”
That seed money allowed them to found Project Chimps and prepare the sanctuary for its new inhabitants—which includes a six-acre habitat called Peachtree, which has “chimp villas.” Presently, 81 chimpanzees live the good life at Project Chimps.
“We’re currently in the middle of a campaign to raise $15 million to build what we call Phase 2,” Wagman says. “That’s the second habitat area so we can bring in the remaining approximately 100 chimps who are still in New Iberia who we didn’t have room for yet.”
Outside of Phase 2, there are other critical costs. Chimpanzees in captivity can live between 40 to 60 years, Wagman says, so other fundraising will cover food and health care for nearly 200 chimpanzees for their lifetimes. There’s also currently a staff of more than 30 and a crew of 150 to 200 volunteers who support the sanctuary year-round. Wagman figures it’ll cost more than $100 million to support Project Chimps for the next 50 years.
Nothing loosens potential donors’ purse strings quite like celebrities, and Wagman has gotten quite a crew together: Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day; celebrity chef and talk show host Rachael Ray; actress Judy Greer and her producer husband Dean Johnson; famed tattoo artist Kat Von D; and an endorsement from the mother of all chimp advocates, primatologist Jane Goodall.
“Project Chimps is a great organization that needs help,” Wagman says, “and [these celebrities] felt the attraction to the chimpanzees. It’s pretty hard to go to Project Chimps or even read about some of the stories of our chimpanzees and not immediately fall in love with the whole idea and want to help if you can.”
Project Chimps posts bios about each of the sanctuary’s residents, like Roxy, who kicks it in the Blue Ridge with her chimp BFFs Krystin, Kirk and Maverick and sometimes makes “poor decisions,” like throwing her rubber toys at the alpha female, Lindsey. “What’s fascinating about chimpanzees is that they’re just like us,” Wagman says. “Every one of them has their own likes and interests and dislikes and quirks. Every one of them is a unique personality.”
Wagman says donors can contribute to either Phase 2 specifically, or via a general donation to Project Chimps, or even to a favorite chimpanzee. One Georgia woman recently donated trees and roses.
“When we distributed the roses, the chimpanzees all picked them up and sweetly sort of handed them back and forth to each other. And then they ate them,” Wagman says, laughing. “And I thought that was just perfect.”