Environment

Rescued From the Brink: Inside the World's Largest Chimp Sanctuary

What happens to all those chimps who've endured hell for our benefit? The lucky few get to retire to their own private island in Florida.

It's a stunning day in Fort Pierce, Florida, just north of Miami. Sunshine has nudged out the winter cold and there's green grass and blue sky as far as you can see. Only the words "Careful -- she's going to spit!" interrupt the postcard moment.

Just as Triana Romero says those words, Tammy does as predicted (neither of us gets hit).

Romero, director of communications for Save the Chimps, clearly knows Tammy, a 20-something chimpanzee, well enough to spot a spit-face when she sees one. Tammy is being silly, Romero says, and Tammy goes on being silly by blowing a stream of Bronx cheers that would impress even South Park's Terrance and Phillip.

Considering Tammy's background her silliness is pretty impressive. When the U.S. Air Force decided to stop doing chimp research, the apes and their progeny (deemed "surplus equipment") were sent either to the Texas sanctuary Primarily Primates or to the Coulston Foundation in Alamogordo, New Mexico, a biomedical lab with an abysmal record of animal care. Here's what Encyclopedia Britanica's Animal Advocacy blog page says about Coulston:

The conditions were horrendous: animals were confined in concrete and steel cages for years; the laboratory conducted unapproved research methods; and basic animal welfare protocols were disregarded. Three chimpanzees died in October 1993 when a malfunctioning space heater sent temperatures in their room soaring to 140 °F. In just eight years, 35 chimpanzees and 13 monkeys died as the result of experimentation, poor veterinary care, and preventable diseases. Many independent government bodies investigated and found that the Coulston Foundation had repeatedly violated federal regulations, including the Animal Welfare Act, but enforcement of the laws was poor, and fines, though levied, were not collected....

In reaction to the Air Force's decision to divest itself of chimps, primatologist Carole Noon founded Save the Chimps in 1997 and eventually sued the Air Force on the behalf of the Coulston chimps, counting Dr. Jane Goodall (who sits on STC's advisory council) among her supporters. They settled out of court and 21 of the chimps were en route to Florida by 2001. Tammy was one of them.

Today 187 chimpanzees call this sprawling property, with its platforms, swings, hammocks, and most importantly other chimps, their home.

"This is where it all began," says Romero of a small, white house on the edge of the sanctuary where Dr. Noon lived. With a grant from the Arcus Foundation, (which also funded the Fort Pierce property) Save the Chimps also bought the Coulston property and the 266 chimps that came with it in 2002, making Save the Chimps the largest sanctuary in the world. STC transformed the grim enclosures in New Mexico into a more spacious, colorful and connected environment. They hope to transfer all the chimps from there to the Florida location by 2011.

Dr. Noon died of pancreatic cancer last year but her legacy is an inspirational feat of engineering and empathy. Situated on 150 acres of former orange grove, the sanctuary is divided into 12 islands, each with family groups of up to 25 chimps. The islands are separated by lakes (chimps can't swim), so there's no need for bars and just enough fencing to go from the water to their hurricane-proof shelters -- each island has one, with interconnected cages; the chimps can go outside any time except for brief daily maintenance intervals.

How do they know they're hurricane-proof?

"If they're chimp-proof, they're hurricane-proof," says Romero, referring to the chimps' massive strength, seven times that of a human being (the staff has no direct contact with the animals, except for vet care).

It's impossible to think of that and not consider the recent tragedies involving wild animals in captivity. Last year Travis, a full-grown pet chimpanzee mauled his owner's friend and recently Tilikum, a killer whale at Sea World in Orlando attacked and killed trainer Dawn Brancheau.

Such events naturally raise the issue of keeping wild creatures as entertainers, pet or research subjects.

The United States is the only country in the world that federally funds medical research on chimps, a practice that might end with the Great Ape Protection Act, which was re-introduced to Congress in March of 2009. The legislation would release about 500 government-owned chimpanzees to sanctuaries and ban the breeding of chimps for research. On March 5 the Humane Society of the United States announced the launch of a confidential whistleblower hotline so employees at the seven chimp research labs in the US (or other animal research facilities) can report alleged abuses by calling the confidential hotline at 1-866-293-HSUS. The hotline comes a year after HSUS released the results of an undercover investigation into the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana showing numerous examples of inhumane treatment, including horrible instances caught on video and aired by ABC News Nightline (shown here on Examiner.com).

The HSUS website also says that “At any given time, about 80 percent to 90 percent of chimpanzees in laboratories are not used in research, but simply warehoused at taxpayer expense.”

Freeing captive animals, though, isn't as easy as sliding a door open. Jen Feuerstein, sanctuary director of Save the Chimps (which is a sanctuary and not an advocacy group) is an expert at helping apes from labs, entertainment and the pet trade assimilate into a natural environment, a process that can take up to a year for each individual.

Feuerstein, working closely with the staff, is the one who ultimately decides which chimps will mesh well, thus easing the socialization process. One of her favorite stories is about Alice, who lived with five other female chimpanzees in New Mexico. The other chimps had been kind to her but sometimes Alice would "scream for no reason..she would pull at her feet and hands...she never smiled. She didn't want to go outside."

According to Alice's profile she was isolated as a toddler and spent 12 years being used as a research subject. It was decided to help her integrate into the larger group by introducing her to Pam and Elway, two of the sanctuary's youngest inhabitants. Alice was intimidated by the playful babies at first, but one day the staff heard a new sound that threw everyone for a loop: Alice was laughing. (A chimpanzee laugh is an almost-silent heeheehee, kind of like panting; we hear it a couple of times during our visit.)

Alice is no longer intimidated by other chimps; in fact, she grew "stroppy" in Dr. Noon's words, and her group is even named for her. "She became who she was meant to be," Feuerstein says.

Retirement to Florida isn't a cheap prospect for anyone and Save the Chimps relies exclusively on private funding; the sanctuary's food bill alone (including 600 bananas a day) is $450,000 annually. There's also vet care (including contraception), a 77-member staff and transportation: it costs $25,000 to migrate a trailer full of 10 chimps to Florida.

The result, though, is well worth the cost. These animals who have spent their lives serving humanity are retired to a life that's good as captivity gets. (Born or raised in captivity the chimps can never be released into the wild because they lack the necessary survival skills.) Some of them haven't felt grass beneath their feet in 40 years. Some stay on their concrete patios for two weeks before they are emotionally capable of venturing out into open spaces.

Ron, a 34-year-old male, was used in spinal studies in which a healthy disc was removed from his spine and replaced with a prosthetic that was eventually removed as well, leaving him a disc short. Romero says he is curious, mellow and loves people, his background evidently not causing him to see all people as threats. "I don't know a lot of humans who would be that forgiving," she says.

By the end of our visit we've seen the paintings these bright, engaged  chimps do for enrichment, saw one chimp lounging in the sun, arms and legs spread, the most relaxed creature I’ve ever seen, and finally there’s Sophie. She runs up carrying an orangutan doll which she takes everywhere, like Linus with his blanket. Romero asks if she’s enjoying the sun and she nods. And I nod. Then Sophie shakes her head no. I copy. She has me engaged in "monkey see, monkey do," and I’m the monkey. I’m so smitten that it’s hard to leave. But their peaceful retirement is why it’s a sanctuary and not open to the public. Whether it’s tigers, whales or chimpanzees, Romero puts the question of captivity in an elegant nutshell, saying simply "They’re not for us."