Real-life 'Planet of the Apes' thrives on Monkey Island

A fascinating new documentary takes you to the home of medically messed-with chimps.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
2 min read

Caesar, is that you? Video screenshot by Michael Franco/CNET

"There's an island in the middle of a river in Liberia, deep in the jungle of West Africa that's said to be home to over 60 chimpanzees, all infected with contagious diseases. They were released there years ago after being used for medical research and now they roam wild."

So begins a new 17-minute-long documentary (embedded below) from online magazine Vice and 20th Century Fox (Vice Media investors and the makers of "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"). The project had a film crew travel to Monrovia, Liberia to see just what has happened on Monkey Island, a place where chimps used in the Vilab medical research program were retired after experimentation. As part of the program, launched by the New York Blood Center in the '70s, over 100 chimps were infected with diseases like hepatitis and river blindness in order to find cures, the documentary says.

In addition to traveling to Africa, the documentary team heads to Berkley Heights, NJ, to interview Betsy Brotman, the former head of the project -- and that's where the film truly gets engaging. Brotman was in Liberia during two extremely bloody civil wars.

Through all of the turbulence, including the loss of her husband who was shot in the conflict, she managed to provide refuge for both the chimps and a group of women and children who were affected by the violence. "When we went to the island to feed the chimps, we would see bodies floating in the water, sometimes women with babies tied to their back," she recalls at one particularly poignant moment in the documentary.

While the tale is definitely dark, there is a bright spot near the end. Working with a team of Liberians, the New York Blood Center continues to feed the chimps, most -- if not all -- of whom have recovered from their diseases and continue to live out their lives on a very real "Island of the Apes."