Other than the pattering of rain on the leaf-strewn ground and an occasional mourning dove call, it’s quiet in this part of Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Then you hear it: low grunting and hooting that rises through the pine trees into a ruckus of screeches and howls. Owls? Coyotes? No, it’s lunchtime for the chimpanzees.
Once used in research, the 40 chimpanzees here at Project Chimps, a 236-acre wooded habitat with expansive yards and four villas, are finally learning the joys of being chimps: feeling grass beneath their feet, climbing trees, foraging for food and engaging in a little romance.
For lunch today, the chimps in Villa 1 practice foraging by gathering crisp lettuce leaves scattered about their outdoor enclosure. Other chimps hoot and grunt as they rush to eat, but Buttercup and Charisse, 13-year-old twin sisters, wait their turn. They sit on a long, elevated platform—Buttercup in front clutching a blanket, Charisse behind clutching her sister. Together they sway side to side, the rocking motion slowly moving them forward. When they reach the end of the platform, they turn around, Buttercup always in front, and begin rocking again before they break apart to grab a bite to eat.
Their caretakers believe the sisters often sway like this, a behavior not seen in the wild, as a way to comfort themselves. Project Chimps has few details about the animals’ lives inside the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana, a biomedical research facility where they had lived since birth. They were raised by their mother, but she was not raised by hers, so she had no nurturing skills to pass down. Without a role model, the chimps created their own version of normal behavior. “Imagine a kindergarten class with no teacher,” says Project Chimps director Ali Crumpacker, who with her team has the challenging task of becoming that teacher from a safe distance.
But there is a much larger task ahead: There are still 173 retired chimpanzees waiting at the research center, and to bring them all to these mountains, Crumpacker and her team must raise $10 million.
The plan to relocate the animals to Project Chimps was set into motion in 2015 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in response to a legal petition filed by The HSUS and other groups, decided to classify all chimps in the U.S. as endangered. The sanctuary needs the money to safeguard more outdoor habitat, construct more villas and cover expenses for the day-to-day care of 173 more chimpanzees (it costs about $22,000 a year to care for each of the chimps, who usually live into their 50s).
“This is only the beginning,” Crumpacker says. For each of the chimpanzees at the sanctuary, there are roughly four more depending on Project Chimps to come through. Each animal with her own name and personality, each with her own story. While the caretakers at Project Chimps wait for the chance to welcome them all, they focus on the charismatic creatures living safely in their care. Here are some of their stories.
Eddie & Emma
Lying on a hammock made of recycled fire hose, Emma (below) appears less than impressed with her suitor’s flirtations. Eddie, 13 (at right), has patiently been trying to win her affection for more than two hours, showing off by swinging around his side of the enclosure, occasionally coming up to the gate that separates them to offer to groom her. Emma, 13, is usually quite curious, but today she’s reserved. Chimp socialization expert Mike Seres watches closely, videotaping key moments and dictating notes into a voice recorder. Before Emma’s group of females and Eddie’s group of males can share the outdoor habitat, they all need to meet one-on-one. (The males have been sterilized, and the females are given an oral contraceptive to make sure there are no surprise additions.) A system of gated doors in a special enclosure allows a male and female to see each other but only move closer when Seres sees signs they’re ready. This is the first time many of these chimps have encountered a member of the opposite sex. Rushing the introductions could prove disastrous.
Seres tosses some sunflower seeds and strawberry-flavored Cheerios between them. Eventually, Emma’s curious nature wins over and she approaches, taking her time picking up the treats and allowing Eddie to groom her through the gate. Seres checks his stopwatch and notes the time. After nearly another hour of positive interaction, he slowly lifts the final gate. The chimps immediately embrace, and Eddie pulls back to kiss Emma’s face and hands. Seres smiles and again notes the time. The pair would be inseparable well into the evening.
Memories of his previous life seem to linger with 16-year-old Arthur. He’s learning to distance himself from loud noises, displays of dominance and other things that upset him, and he soothes himself by shaking his head side to side. His caretakers have discovered he loves boots—work boots, rain boots, any type of boots—as long as they’re on someone’s feet. Many of the chimps here prefer human newcomers keep their distance, but Arthur invited one closer so he could admire her boots. His dark eyes intently followed her feet as she lifted them one at a time toward him, wiggling them back and forth, turning them so he could see from all angles. When she stopped, he quickly looked up, his brow furrowing as he nodded back to the boots. She, of course, obliged.
It was a rocky start for the females in Villa 4. Without an established leader, the chimps divided along age lines into two groups that were often at odds with each other. The younger chimps stockpiled treats, the older chimps stole them and very few got along— until the day some curious males came nosing around. Even though the males were safely outside the villa, Sky, 21, wrapped her arms around her fellow chimps to protect them. The two groups then bonded into one, as Villa 4 finally found its leader.
While all of the sanctuary’s chimps show behaviors that hint at their previous lives, 12-year-old Genesis’ are among the most severe. She has a neurological disorder that sends her into fits of rage almost like seizures. She finds comfort and reassurance with her fellow chimps, who give her space and then hug her when she recovers. The fits occur with less frequency as the days go by, and her caretakers are hopeful that with time and encouragement from her group, especially from 14-year-old leader Latricia, she’ll continue to improve. On a recent afternoon, Genesis slid into an episode and focused her fury on a blanket clutched in her hands. Latricia stayed by her side until the fit subsided and Genesis had calmed enough to let the blanket go. Latricia patted her shoulder and hugged her. When Genesis turned away to join the others, Latricia picked up the blanket and destroyed it.
The chimps have regular enrichment activities here, including art projects, special crafts and movie nights complete with popcorn. While Patrick, 16, is usually a good sport, there is one flick he gives a double thumbs-down: ironically, Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees documentary. As soon as Jane appears, Patrick pretends to throw things at the screen. “Why any chimp would have something against Jane Goodall is a mystery to me,” jokes caretaker Anthony Denice. Patrick could be reacting to the scenes he knows are coming, ones that show conflict and baby chimpanzees, or maybe he’s just got a sense of humor.
Jabari, 14, is one of only two chimps here who refuses to reach into the hopper, a metal basket for distributing food. His caretakers suspect it reminds him of something from his previous life. Instead, they pass his food through openings in the enclosure. He likes to keep his hands clean, so he bites the cucumbers in half lengthwise to use the peel as a handle while he cleans out the inside. Once all the flesh is gone, he gobbles up the peels—no cleanup required.
Parked at the bottom of a hill not far from the chimps is the transport trailer that brought them here. It sits, freshly washed by the morning’s rain, ready to bring the rest of the retired chimps home to these mountains.
Up the hill in Villa 1, Buttercup returns to her blanket, lettuce leaves clutched in her hands. Raindrops beat a calming rhythm on the nearby trees as she sways and eats, this time staying in place on the platform. She pats her back and looks for Charisse. The best way to move forward, she seems to know, is together.