Inside a Retirement Home for Lab Chimps

KEITHVILLE, Louisiana—It's a few minutes before 8 a.m. at Chimp Haven, a sanctuary for retired research chimpanzees, and the air fills with their excited hoots and cries. Chimps in an open-air forested enclosure have spotted veterinarian Raven Jackson carrying a caddy packed with their morning's juice treats and frozen bananas. A half-dozen dark-haired chimpanzees crowd the wire metal gate and wait for her to dispense the goodies.

"Hello, Sara Soda," Jackson says to one very large and well-padded female, who opens her mouth wide to swig her juice. "And Rita, you're next," the vet says to the chimpanzee sidled tight against Sara.

Each bottle is filled with a mix of juice and individually tailored vitamins and medicines for the ailments these older chimps suffer, including arthritis and heart disease.

There are youngsters, too, in the lineup. Two-year-old Natalie clings to her mother, Ginger, while seven-year-old Tracy, an orphan, pants excitedly until she's received her juice, then turns and somersaults across the lawn.

These young chimps were born in the sanctuary, but unexpectedly, since the male chimps have all had vasectomies. That's why, for the past two years, the females' frozen bananas have been laced with birth control. Chimp Haven didn't intend to breed more chimps in captivity. Instead, these are meant to be among the last of the chimpanzees owned by the U.S. government.

And unlike their mothers, these youngsters will not be the subjects of laboratory experiments.

For nearly a hundred years, chimpanzees have been used in U.S. laboratories to test new vaccines and medical procedures. Sometimes housed in small, cement cages, many lived most of their lives in isolation. But in recent years, the movement to end invasive research on these animals, humans' closest genetic relatives, has gained force.

Now, special sanctuaries, designed specifically for chimpanzees, are opening their doors to these great apes. They're here to serve the chimpanzees who served humankind as subjects of government-funded biomedical research.

And once at a place like Chimp Haven, they can even learn to be chimps again. Chimps socialize with each other here, some for the first time, and are showing that the behaviors of wild chimps can be learned even after years in the laboratory.

"We don't know all the details of their personal histories," says Amy Fultz, a behavioral specialist and co-founder of Chimp Haven. "And we don't know all that they endured. But for many of them it was a harsh life, and when they first came here, their attitude was 'people suck.' That they trust us as much as they do now is phenomenal to me. They are incredibly forgiving."

Retirements "Happening Really Fast"

President Bill Clinton paved the way for sanctuaries like Chimp Haven 14 years ago when he signed the CHIMP Act, which recognized that the government had a surplus of chimpanzees. Some were elderly, in their late 40s and 50s.

The act established a National Chimpanzee Sanctuary System to which government-owned chimpanzees used in federally funded research programs could retire.

At the time, there were about 600 government-owned chimpanzees in research facilities scattered across the country, where they were used primarily for HIV, monoclonal antibody, and hepatitis studies. Another 1,000 chimps were in privately owned research facilities.

Today, about 450 of the government chimps survive, with half living in sanctuaries such as Chimp Haven. Most of the others are waiting to be moved.

Many of these apes had been born in captivity after the National Institutes of Health increased chimpanzee breeding for HIV research in the 1980s; a moratorium was placed on this program in 1995, when scientists discovered that while chimps can be infected with HIV, they do not develop the full-blown symptoms of AIDS, making them a poor model to study the disease. The NIH ended its breeding program entirely in 2012.

Still, to people working to rescue the research chimpanzees, like Sarah Baeckler Davis, the executive director of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance, it seemed unlikely in 2000 that most of the NIH's research chimpanzees would now be retired.

"I thought it would take decades," Baeckler Davis said in a telephone interview from her office in Portland, Oregon. "But it's happening really fast now. It's definitely a trend, and the handwriting is on the wall for anyone using chimpanzees in research."

Public sentiment has also turned against using chimpanzees, especially in invasive studies, after decades of studies on the apes revealed their intelligent, emotional natures to be similar to our own.

The efforts to retire the chimpanzees picked up in 2011, when the NIH asked a 12-member committee of scientists from various disciplines to evaluate current and past research projects that used the apes. The committee's report, issued by the prestigious Institute of Medicine, concluded that while chimpanzee research has had medical value, most current projects are not necessary.

Further, the Institute of Medicine report recommended that any future research programs be reviewed to determine if they are a "necessary and appropriate" use of the species—such as ongoing research into monoclonal antibody therapies (now studied as a potential cancer treatment), genetic comparisons, behavioral and cognitive studies, and neuroimaging.

Although chimpanzees might be required for investigating new diseases in the future, "the long-term goal is not to use chimpanzees at all," says James Anderson, a director at NIH, who oversees its chimpanzees and their retirement program.

"It doesn't mean the NIH is eliminating chimpanzee research altogether," stresses Jen Feuerstein, the director of Save the Chimps, a sanctuary in Florida, which also has taken in many of the retirees, including 266 that were privately owned by the Coulston Foundation, a research facility notorious for numerous animal welfare violations. "But the bar for these studies has been set much higher."

Just Being a Chimpanzee

Chimp Haven, which is the only sanctuary authorized to care for NIH chimpanzees harboring infectious diseases, began welcoming the retirees to its 200 acres of pine woods in 2005, and now houses 208.

Of these, 110 arrived just this spring. Some had never seen the sky, or set foot on anything other than concrete; a few had been socially isolated for most of their lives.

Many were infected with HIV or hepatitis viruses, and had endured multiple liver biopsies. Those females who had been in the NIH's breeding program (including the young Tracy's mother) had all of their babies taken from their arms.

"We don't know what they remember about their past lives," says Chimp Haven's Fultz. "But here, they all live in social groups; they have friends, and they get to do basically what they want."

And most of what they want is just to be chimpanzees—palling around with a friend, or putting on loud, energetic displays, or letting a youngster hitch a ride on their backs. On Chimp Haven's grounds, the apes live in a variety of cages and enclosures, including concrete-walled play yards, with climbing platforms, ropes, and swings.

There are also two large forested habitats that are bounded by a moat and fences, and it's in these wooded areas that Fultz has witnessed what she once would have considered most unlikely: former captive chimpanzees climbing to the tops of the pines, or hunting raccoons, or making stick tools to forage for ants, just as apes do in the wild in Africa. Chimps who had been raised in captivity weren't thought to know how to do any of these things; they never had the chance to learn.

"It's our oldest chimpanzees, like Rita, who know how to do all these things," Fultz said.

Rita had been captured in Africa when she was a youngster; her mother and other family members were most likely killed when she was seized. Ultimately, she ended up as one of the U.S. Air Force's breeding chimpanzees for its space program.

Some of her offspring may have served in space; no one knows. "But, no, she would not have raised any of her kids," Fultz said.

Rita was also one of the first chimpanzees to arrive at Chimp Haven in 2005. Not long after she had settled in, Fultz spotted her halfway up a pine tree.

"It made such an impression on me," Fultz said. "None of our chimps that were born in captivity knew how to climb trees, or how to fish for ants; they've learned by watching Rita. But she remembered how to do both because she'd done them in Africa with her mother. She hadn't forgotten."

Retirement for Almost All

All but 50 of the NIH-funded chimpanzees are now scheduled for retirement. The institutes are retaining those last few for projects that meet the new standards. There are about 900 other privately owned chimpanzees that are still subjected to medical testing, or used in entertainment, or kept as pets.

It's harder to track what's happening to the privately owned chimps, but the shift away from using these animals in research means that at least some will end up in sanctuaries.

Chimps from all kinds of facilities, private or government, would be readily welcomed at a sanctuary, says Baeckler Davis of the Sanctuary Alliance, which has seven approved retirement centers, including Chimp Haven and Save the Chimps, for the apes.

Here they all live in social groups; they have friends, and they get to do basically what they want.

Yet even these chimps may one day be able to lead a life as free as Rita's: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will soon be announcing its decision on a proposal that all chimpanzees—even those privately owned and in captivity—be listed as endangered.

"We don't know what the effect of this will be," says Baeckler Davis. "But people couldn't do things to chimpanzees that are prohibited under the Endangered Species Act."

If the ruling is enacted, public and privately financed researchers will likely be required to obtain permits for any experiments that harm chimpanzees, and will have to show that their experiments contribute to the survival of chimpanzees in the wild.

Whether chimps are listed as endangered or not, more and more of them can look forward to a home in a sanctuary alongside other chimpanzees, Baeckler Davis says, with plenty of good food, things to do, and choices to make. And above all, the chance at long last to simply be a chimpanzee.

Read This Next

How to eat in 6 of the world’s most stunning places
Cliff art reveals the majesty of the Amazon’s aquatic realm

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet