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Haven Can't Wait, Page 2

At Chimp Haven, new arrivals learn what it means to be a chimpanzee

All Animals magazine, May/June 2013

  • Magnum shows why Chimp Haven stocks an ultrasonic teeth cleaner. The chimps like to store biscuits in their mouths. Michelle Riley/The HSUS

(page 2 of 5)

Opposable thumbs up

For Julius’ quartet and five other chimps, retirement began the morning of Jan. 22, when they left the New Iberia Research Center in southern Louisiana and traveled 220 miles north to Chimp Haven. As they rolled up to the rural property in Keithville, staff members lined the gravel driveway, clapping and cheering. The moment marked the first wave of what could be the largest group of government-owned chimpanzees ever to be retired from a laboratory.

Julius’ journey began 53 years ago, when he was trapped as an infant in Africa. Now nearing the end of a captive chimpanzee’s expected lifespan, the gentle-natured ape would likely have ended his days at the New Iberia Research Center, where a 2008 HSUS undercover investigation revealed traumatized chimps living alone in barren cages, others gang-housed in overcrowded enclosures, and rough handling and medical treatment protocols that kept the animals in constant fear.

But the past two decades have brought increasing momentum to the campaign to end invasive research on chimpanzees. Most recently, a 2011 Institute of Medicine study concluded that chimpanzees are largely unnecessary for biomedical and behavioral research, leading to what bioethicist and study committee chair Jeffrey Kahn describes as the strongest restrictions to date on the use of any animal species for research in the U.S. With urging from The HSUS and Chimp Haven, the National Institutes of Health, which commissioned the study, eventually agreed to send to sanctuary all 111 government-owned chimps at New Iberia—if enough funds can be raised to expand sanctuary capacity.

Standing before a forested area where Julius and his friends will eventually roam, Kathleen Conlee tries to hold back tears. “It’s been a long road,” says the HSUS vice president of animal research issues. “Working in animal research issues, you prevent additional research often, but you don’t actually physically see animals get out to a place like this.”

It’s not just the habitats that make Chimp Haven special. The sanctuary’s unofficial motto is “we’re here to serve them.” This means gaining the animals’ trust and training them to present body parts so that handling and medical procedures are as stress-free as possible. “I’ve worked in other facilities where the vet is viewed [by the animals] as this negative entity,” says veterinarian Raven Jackson. “These guys see me and they come running.”

It means recruiting a facial surgeon to operate on Jerry, who arrived from a lab in 2011 with mouth tumors that made eating difficult. And researching options for Tika, who was infected with multiple strains of HIV and is now being treated with antiretroviral medications.

When it comes to moving to the music, the chimps "have rhythm, but no beat."

Serving the chimps also means placing them in groups where they can form friendships, groom each other, and establish hierarchies. And it involves enabling species-typical behaviors like climbing, nest building, and play.

Even the lab-born chimps have taken to these activities with gusto, learning from their wild-born friends. In the forested habitats, they use sticks to extract honey and raisins from man-made “termite mounds.” Scattered seeds and other goodies encourage the foraging that occupies much of a wild chimp’s life.

Chimps who lived for decades in steel and concrete cages with no bedding now indulge their nest-building instincts to their fullest. Some weave yaupon holly branches and leaves into a circle, piling pine needles in the middle. Others, like 55-year-old Karen, prefer man-made comforts. Each night, the balding matriarch with a wizened, Yoda-like face arranges a pile of blankets about her and carefully tucks herself into bed. “If it’s not quite right, she’ll sit back up and retuck and rearrange and then try it out again,” Fultz says.

Since no captive setting can completely replicate life in the wild, the sanctuary has an activity calendar rivaling that of any senior center: watercolor painting, movies, and treat-filled toys that challenge the apes’ problem-solving abilities. Belly dancers, puppeteers, and drummers perform for the chimps (who, when it comes to moving to the music, “have rhythm but no beat,” says enrichment technician Erin Loeser).

Most of all, the animals are surrounded by people who adore them and feel privileged to provide them the best possible life. “After working with chimps,” says Jackson, “nothing really compares.”

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