Photos by Tanja M. Laden
I hate to paint with a broad brush here, but primates in America have horrible lives. Sure, there are your One Percenters like Koko and Bubbles the Chimp, but by and large, the US is essentially one big Bergen-Belsen for our oldest living ancestors. Some are forced to do parlor tricks for street performers and others are stuck in cages for pasty-skinned families to gawk at, but perhaps the most unlucky of the lot are used as research subjects by the government.
Chimpanzees share about 96 percent of our DNA. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the government is quite partial to that particular primate when looking for test subjects. Recently, the National Institute of Health issued a statement saying that it "plans to substantially reduce the use of chimpanzees in NIH-funded biomedical research," effectively retiring 310 chimpanzees from the system. “Where are all the newly freed chimpanzees going to go?” You might be asking as thoughts of Bedtime for Bonzo dance through your head. Many will be heading to Chimp Haven, a wildlife sanctuary about 20 miles southwest of Shreveport, Louisiana.
At the risk of sounding like a PETA spokesperson, let me quickly give you the CliffsNotes on how Chimp Haven came into being.
As mentioned above, the US is fond of experimenting on chimpanzees, but because they are endangered, the government had to resort to breeding them in captivity beginning in the 1980s in order to produce more live subjects for the study of diseases like hepatitis and HIV.
By the 1990s, technological advancements in the biomedical field spawned new research models that didn't require chimps. That eventually left the US government with a lot of sick, unwanted great apes on its hands. To help chimpanzees make the transition from working in experimental medicine to retirement, a league of primatologists and other professionals established Chimp Haven in 1995.
Then, in what could be described as a thinly veiled form of damage control, the NIH convinced President Bill Clinton to sign the CHIMP Act in 2000, which helped establish the National Chimpanzee Sanctuary System. Partial government funding went toward Chimp Haven, which soon began operating the National Chimpanzee Sanctuary System itself.
In 2003, on 200 acres at the Eddie D. Jones Nature Park in Keithville, Louisiana, construction began on Chimp Haven. By the end of 2007, US Congress passed the Chimp Haven Is Home Act, which prevented government-retired chimps from being returned to labs. Today, Chimp Haven is America's only facility capable of providing care for chimpanzees with infectious diseases, a.k.a. most government-owned chimps.
Chimpanzees are social animals, so at Chimp Haven none are housed by themselves. Each is assigned a social group with anywhere from five to 15 fellow retirees. If one has an infectious disease, he or she lives with others who have the same disease. Chimp Haven also considers the facilities where the chimps lived prior to arrival. If certain chimps came from the same place, for example, they've probably forged bonds with each other, so they stay in the same group.
Meanwhile, the integration process is carried out slowly and methodically due to factors like age dynamics, along with a social hierarchy that involves alpha males and alpha females.
"At first, there will be a lot of displaying and yelling," says Jennifer Whitaker, former assistant director at Chimp Haven. "But typically they'll calm down if there are girls or food involved."
Chimpanzees communicate both by display and vocalization, but most don’t retain what they learned before arriving in Keithville. With the exception of one who still likes to use sign language to say she’s pretty, the other residents typically return to their natural behavior after a short time at the Haven. Which is a good thing, because if Bubbles and Bonzo have taught us anything, it’s that animals shouldn’t be acting like humans.
That forgetfulness is probably sped up thanks to the “no human contact rule” at Chimp Haven. That's excluding, of course, caretakers and the veterinary staff, who sometimes need to get close to the animals to give them medicine. (One diabetic chimpanzee who needs regular injections has learned to display his arm before he gets his shots.)
While Chimp Haven is a National Chimpanzee Sanctuary, it's still an independent nonprofit organization that relies on donations to help fund its chimps' retirement. Host of The Price Is Right and puncher of Adam Sandler’s face Bob Barker donated $230,000 to help rescue five male Texas-based chimps named JoJo, Doc, Murphy, Flick, and Pierre B.
In the wake of the recent news about the dismissal of 310 government chimps, Chimp Haven president Cathy Willis Spraetz told me that the sanctuary has already brought in 50 of the recently retired chimpanzees, and has plans to provide a home for an additional 60 in the coming months. "The idea is to completely fill up Chimp Haven," Spraetz says, "And then perhaps subcontract with other providers—other sanctuaries—to provide space for those chimpanzees that Chimp Haven just cannot accommodate."
But chimps ain’t cheap, and Spraetz says they need to raise $5 million to cover the cost of care and expansion that will be necessary after acquiring that many additional animals. At the time of writing, Chimp Haven has raised approximately $2.8 million.
"They will remain in the research centers until space is made available for them," Spraetz says of the soon-to-be leisure animals. "They'll just be retired in place, temporarily. So even though they're in a research lab, they will no longer be used in invasive biomedical research."
When I asked Spraetz whether or not the 50 chimps on retainer with the NIH would still be involved in invasive research, she told me, "I don't think that's been determined yet, but [the NIH wants] to have this reserve in the event that there is some information to gain. Although we would hope that, over time, these 50 chimpanzees would also be retired," says Spraetz. "There have been so many scientific advances where chimpanzees are really no longer needed [in research]. We can find cures for those diseases that plague humans in other ways."
If you have any cash burning a hole in your wallet, Chimp Haven welcomes your donations. You can also sponsor a chimp or donate items from the Chimp Haven wish list, which includes sugar-free Jell-O mixes, dog toys, paintbrushes, tambourines, used plastic cat-litter boxes, fire hoses, Halloween masks, and lava lamps, just to name a few.