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April 16, 2013

Haven Can't Wait

Chimp Haven sanctuary prepares to welcome chimpanzees permanently retired from research laboratories

All Animals magazine, May/June 2013

  • Ladybird (left) and Karen enjoy a snack at Chimp Haven. Michelle Riley/The HSUS

by Julie Falconer

Julius, Phyllis, Sandy, and Jessica may not realize it yet, but they recently completed the last leg of a long journey.

Captured in the African rain forest more than 40 years ago, the graying, arthritic apes have spent the bulk of their lives in U.S. laboratories. Now at the national chimpanzee sanctuary in Louisiana, the elderly foursome spend much of their days quietly grooming each other in a spacious play yard. They’re a bit reserved. Still tentative about their new surroundings. But when mealtimes come, they seem to grasp that their lives have taken a dramatic turn for the better.

“The best thing in the world is getting to feed them for the first time,” says Chimp Haven animal care specialist Adrienne Mrsny. “… They are just so excited to see a cucumber and a tomato, and they’re all food barking at each other, hugging each other, and crying with joy.”

Six months from now, staff predict, Julius and his group will be even happier, but less humble and more entitled. Plain popcorn won’t cut it anymore; they’ll want it topped with Cajun seasoning.

Personalities will emerge. Staff will learn who prefers kale over romaine. Who enjoys action movies and who would rather see a nature documentary. Who wants to bivouac in the woods instead of snuggling in a hammock inside a skylighted bedroom.

“We kind of spoil them,” admits behaviorist Amy Fultz.

Outwardly, the animals will change as well. Exercise will improve their muscle mass and sunbathing will darken their pale faces. Scraggly coats will become thick and glossy.

“A year later you’re not dealing with the same chimp who came here,” says caregiver Diane LaBarbera.

Over the years, Chimp Haven has been the scene of many amazing transformations. The once morbidly obese Puddin’ spent a decade alone in a cage at a research facility. For his remaining five years, Puddin’ lived in a group of 19 chimps. “He walked the habitat every day, all the way around the multi-acre perimeter,” says animal care director Kathleen Taylor. “He was constantly out there walking, and he lost an amazing amount of weight. He was just so happy.”

And there’s Doc, whom Taylor knew when she worked at a New York research facility in the mid-1990s. “Doc looks 10 years younger now.”

These are the results Fultz and Chimp Haven board member Linda Brent dreamed of when they first envisioned a place where chimpanzees used in research could spend their final years. In Fultz’s mind, it’s always been a matter of doing what’s right. “They have served us, they didn’t have a choice about that, and we do owe them our thanks and a wonderful retirement.”

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