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Golden Days: Chimps Move from Labs to Sanctuary

August 18, 2014

text by Michael Sharp // photos by Brian Wade/AP Images for The HSUS and Chimp Haven

Their retirement began with a road trip.

They went by truck, in waves of eight and nine, riding three hours through Louisiana. Starting in 2013, 110 chimpanzees made the trek over two years—leaving New Iberia Research Center in Lafayette and traveling north to their new home at Chimp Haven, the national chimpanzee sanctuary.

Some had been captured decades ago in the African wild. Some had been born in a laboratory. Many had been used in HIV and hepatitis studies that required isolation for weeks or months at a time. Today, though—together—they stand as the largest group of government-owned chimpanzees ever sent to sanctuary.

“It’s the first step toward getting hundreds more chimpanzees out of labs,” says Jennifer Ball, project manager for the HSUS campaign against using the animals in invasive experiments. “It’s been amazing. It’s made all those years of hard work by so many dedicated people worth it.”

As the doors opened and six chimps headed out to explore their new forest for the first time, little Diane hung back. Wary. Maybe a bit overwhelmed. Her mother, Muffy, quickly returned for the 4-year-old. The two then waited together before finally venturing out later that afternoon. To this day, Diane still sticks close at times. “When there’s activity going on in the group,” says animal care specialist Mark Lewis, “she’ll always kind of have a hand on her mom’s back, as … reassurance.”

Born at New Iberia, 5-year-olds Jimmy and Mason are two of six rambunctious juveniles in their 5-acre enclosure. Jimmy has started spending more time with the older males in the group, watching them “display”—loud acts that show off their strength and dominance, like punching a doorframe or shaking the mesh. Jimmy’s even been trying his hand at it, though as Lewis says: “Nobody takes him seriously yet because he’s not old enough for it.”

Arden, who recently turned 4, was one of the first juveniles from New Iberia to try climbing. Here she swings through the air with the help of fire hoses strung across the habitat. Many of the youngsters have learned their high-wire acts from 7-year-old Tracy. “She grew up being the only youngster in the group,” Lewis says. “So now she’s kind of reliving her younger days with all these little guys to play with. So she’s … become a good role model … to show them what they can do out there.”

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Smart and strong-minded, Ashely caught on quickly to the sanctuary’s positive-reinforcement training program, wherein staffers teach chimps to present various body parts against the mesh. The clicker training helps vets address injuries or other ailments. “Right now,” Lewis says, “she knows her hands, her head, lips, and she was working on arms the last time I watched her train.”

Barbie Higginbotham, a vet tech, gives Karen (left) and Phyllis their daily doses of medicine, crushed up into watered-down grape juice. Some chimps receive heart meds; others get supplements for joint pain or birth control. Karen, 56, and Phyllis, 52, belong to a small, tight-knit group of older chimps. “They look out for each other,” says Lewis. “… If one is not feeling well, they’ll stay with them.”

Remember Diane, skittish about venturing off into the forest? Here she is relaxing in the trees—what was once so strange now becoming natural, and home.

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