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Finally, Freed

After decades in laboratories, more than 100 former research subjects will rediscover what it means to be a chimpanzee.

Humane Activist magazine, May/June 2013

Captured in the African rain forest as an infant chimpanzee, Julius had spent a staggering 53 years in U.S. laboratories. But on Jan. 22 of this year, his life would begin anew.

That morning, Julius and eight other chimps left the New Iberia Research Center in southern Louisiana and were transported 220 miles north to Chimp Haven, the national chimpanzee sanctuary. As they rolled up to the rural property in Keithville, staff members lined the gravel driveway, clapping and cheering the first wave of the largest group of government-owned chimps ever to be retired from a lab.

“The best thing in the world is getting to feed them for the first time,” says Adrienne Mrsny, animal care specialist at Chimp Haven. “… 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.”

Chimp Haven opened in 2005, after federal legislation established a national sanctuary system for surplus government-owned chimps. Since Julius’ arrival, the facility has greeted two more waves of chimpanzees this year—their retirement marking a culmination of watershed moments in the campaign to end invasive research on these animals.

That campaign began picking up speed in 2009, when an HSUS undercover investigation of New Iberia revealed traumatized chimpanzees living alone in barren cages or packed into overcrowded enclosures. Another key moment came in 2011, when an Institute of Medicine study concluded that chimpanzees are largely unnecessary for biomedical and behavioral research, leading the National Institutes of Health to decide against funding any new studies involving the primates while they examined the issue.

Several biomedical research facilities and pharmaceutical companies have discontinued using chimpanzees. And increased support and progress for the HSLF-backed Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act in the 112th Congress helped motivate NIH to send all 111 government- owned chimps at New Iberia to sanctuary— if funding for expanding the facilities can be obtained.

“It’s been a long road,” says Kathleen Conlee, HSUS vice president of animal research issues, who fought back tears as she stood before the forested habitat at Chimp Haven, where Julius—graying and arthritic—would eventually roam with friends. “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.”

And there is more potential progress on the horizon. At press time, HSLF and others were awaiting an official decision from NIH about implementing unprecedented recommendations from its own advisory council: immediate sanctuary of almost all of the government’s chimpanzees and a permanent ban on breeding them for research purposes.

Hundreds of privately owned chimpanzees not covered by the advisory council’s report may benefit from action on another front. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering a petition to list all chimpanzees as threatened (whether captive in the U.S. or wild), which could greatly limit their use in biomedical research, entertainment, and the pet trade.

“[For] these chimps who have given so much to humankind,” says Cathy Spraetz, Chimp Haven president, “it’s only fitting that we give back to them and let them enjoy their retirement years in as natural a habitat as we can create.”

The unofficial motto at Chimp Haven is “we’re here to serve them.” This means training the animals to present body parts so that handling and medical procedures are as stressfree as possible. It 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 making a nest, climbing, and playing with others.

To ensure their charges are never bored, recaregivers devise activity calendars rivaling those of any senior center: watercolor painting, movies, and treat-filled toys that challenge the chimpanzees’ 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).

If there’s a downside to working at Chimp Haven, it’s this: With a geriatric population, death is a sadly regular occurrence. “It’s like losing a friend,” says caregiver Diane LaBarbera. “The only way we can deal with it is [to remember] that they got to be here, even if it was for a short time.”

Asked why the chimpanzees inspire such devotion, their caregivers rattle off a list of attributes: their intelligence, their sense of humor, even the cunning and ability to deceive that keep staff members on their toes.

While laboratory conditions have improved over the years, federal law still allows chimps to be kept alone in 5-by-5-by-7 foot cages. And many of Chimp Haven’s elders experienced lab life when there were no regulations governing their care and housing. For some, recovering from past trauma takes time. They may show abnormal rocking behaviors typical of infant chimps deprived of their mothers. Many new arrivals are afraid of grass. Others are wall-walkers, fearful of open spaces. A few display obsessive-compulsive behaviors, such as picking at their skin.

But with patience and gentle training, staff members help these animals gradually heal. No matter what they’ve been through, Conlee says, “they do rehabilitate, and they deserve the chance to do so.”

In one play yard, Cody—an outgoing, 32-year-old male—pushes a plastic barrel around like a hyperactive toddler with a shopping cart. In the distance, Henry, the neighborhood busybody, sways in a pine tree high above Habitat 2. And in a few hours, Julius and his group will be released to a play yard, where for the first time in more than four decades, they will look up at a sky without bars. Chimpanzees at Chimp Haven are placed in groups where they can form friendships, groom each other, establish hierarchies, and play.

Re-printed from the May/June 2013 issue of Humane Activist, the full-color bimonthly membership magazine of the Humane Society Legislative Fund. To become a member and receive a one-year subscription to Humane Activist, simply make a donation at the $10 level or higher.