A well-deserved retirement after a lifetime of service
Talk about a happy ending. Chimpanzees used for years or their entire lives in biomedical research now have a lovely place to retire — a facility in north Louisiana that offers acres of forest, outdoor play yards, veterinary care and a varied cuisine.
Chimp Haven Federal Sanctuary in Keithville is part of the National Institute of Health’s plan to retire the animals from the laboratory to a sanctuary that is more appropriate for their needs. NIH found that the majority of chimpanzees used at research facilities are no longer necessary for research due to advancing technology.
The plan includes moving about one hundred chimpanzees from the New Iberia Research Center (NIRC) to Chimp Haven.
“We are the national chimpanzee sanctuary, designated by the U.S. government,” said Cathy Willis Spraetz, president and CEO of Chimp Haven.
The non-profit was incorporated in 1995, formed by a group of primatologists and business professionals who saw the need for a sanctuary, said Amy Fultz, behavior and education program manager and one of Chimp Haven’s co-founders.
Caddo Parish donated two hundred acres to the organization and in 2002 Chimp Haven was selected by the government to operate the National Chimpanzee Sanctuary System, overseen by the NIH. Chimp Haven’s first residents arrived in April 5, 2005, two chimpanzees who had been in the NASA Space Program prior to being used in biomedical research. Currently Chimp Haven has 154 chimps with the number “going up every month,” said Kathleen Taylor, director of animal care.
Chimpanzees who are moved to Chimp Haven undergo a brief quarantine period in order to become acclimated to their new environment, receive full physical examinations by Chimp Haven’s veterinarian Dr. Raven Jackson, and have their behavior observed by staff members. Once released, they may be integrated into larger social groups. Their housing consists of “bedrooms” and outdoor environments that vary in size and function based on the needs of the individual chimpanzee.
The surrounding forests offer good vegetation for the animals and the locale offers an appropriate climate, said Fultz.
“It’s a great environment for chimpanzees,” she said. “They regularly eat at least seven species of leaves here.”
In addition, the staff spends hours observing the chimpanzees to determine what groups they will be incorporated into.
“It’s not just a science,” Spraetz explained. “It’s an art.”
Some of the chimpanzees have never experienced the outdoors or the feel of grass beneath their feet.
“We’ve seen tremendous resilience in the chimpanzees,” Taylor said. “Many of them took to the forest right away. They have the freedom to be where they want to be, when they want to be and who they want to be with.”
Chimp Haven staff look for signs of improvement after their integration into the facility, from brighter eyes, improved muscle tone and a shinier coat, to a more playful attitude.
“The before and after pictures are amazing,” Spraetz said. “It’s a marked difference. You can see the difference.”
EDUCATION AND OUTREACH
Chimp Haven opens their doors seven times a year to the public during “Chimpanzee Discovery Days” with educational activities and a viewing of the chimpanzees from across a water moat one Saturday a month in March, April, May, June, September, October and November. After Chimpanzee Discovery Days, pre-registered visitors can also enjoy “Chimp Chat & Chew,” a behind-the-scenes tour, catered meal and an in-depth presentation by staff. The sanctuary also offers special tours for major donors.
In addition, staff members visit local and regional schools for educational programs, providing interactive activities in the classrooms initially, and then allowing the school children to visit for a hayride and chimp viewing as a follow-up to the in-class visit.
Of Chimp Haven’s two hundred acres, currently seventy-five are being utilized. The facility will expand its housing in the next few months to accommodate the rest of the 111 animals arriving from New Iberia, Spraetz said. The current expansion costs a little more than $5 million and Chimp Haven has raised slightly more than half that amount, some of which was the result of a donation by the Humane Society. They must raise the remainder to finish the job before the entire group of chimpanzees arrives from New Iberia. In addition, Spraetz said, the government only pays seventy-five percent of the chimpanzees’ care, which means Chimp Haven must raise the money to cover the remaining twenty-five percent.
If most of the chimpanzees in the NIH system are retired, Chimp Haven will have to expand once again. The sanctuary could accommodate 425 chimps if a well thought-out and designed master plan were completed, Spraetz explained, but they will need a total of $29 million to do that. Subtract the $5 million they must raise this year and it’s an additional $24 million to raise.
Organizations such as the Humane Society of the United States are helping, in addition to private donors and other foundations, but the need is great. Spraetz hopes local and regional groups will help educate the community about Chimp Haven’s work and encourage donations as well.
“The local community is very supportive of Chimp Haven but any additional support we can get from the community, both local and regional, would be great,” Spraetz said. “It’s so important that we can continue this effort.”
Working at Chimp Haven has been a labor of love for Spraetz and her staff.
“We all love the chimps and we all love what we do,” she said. “I’m in awe of the complete dedication and the complexity of the work they [staff] do with the chimpanzees.”
Taylor sees this work as giving something back.
“They have done so much for us over the years. It’s an honor to be able to serve them.”
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