As of July 2, after more than a year of planning and fundraising, all 110 chimpanzees from Louisiana's New Iberia Research Center have been relocated to Chimp Haven where they will live out their days in retirement.
"We are thrilled that this great day has finally arrived," Chimp Haven President Cathy Willis Spraetz said in a news statement. "Our dreams have finally been realized for these amazing animals."
Located outside Shreveport, Louisiana, Chimp Haven is a nonprofit that serves as the National Chimpanzee Sanctuary.
The idea for the sanctuary was conceived in 1995 by a group of primatologists and business professionals who saw a need for long-term chimpanzee care because of a surplus of chimps in U.S. labs.
The primates, which are genetically similar to humans, have traditionally been popular test subjects for biomedical researchers.
In fact, they were so commonly used in testing, that in the 1980s, the U.S. government embarked on a breeding program for chimps to be used in hepatitis and HIV research.
However, new technologies led to a decline in the use of chimps, and soon labs were housing hundreds of chimps that weren't part of any ongoing research.
The creators of Chimp Haven envisioned their sanctuary as a place these primates could live outdoors in social groups, and they set to work to make their dream a reality.
Caddo Parish donated 200 acres to the organization to build the sanctuary, and in 2002, Chimp Haven was selected by the government to operate the National Chimpanzee Sanctuary System, overseen by the National Institute of Health.
The sanctuary's first residents — two chimps that had been in the NASA space program prior to being used in biomedical research — arrived in 2005.
But it wasn't until March 2013 that Chimp Haven received its first chimps released under the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection (CHIMP) Act, which established a federally funded retirement system for chimpanzees no longer needed for research.
The Humane Society released a video of the animals stepping outdoors for the first time, which quickly went viral. (Parts of that video are included in the video below.)
Increased public interest in research primates was an added pressure on testing facilities to release more chimps, but it's a slow process as the animals have varying physical and psychological needs.
Chimpanzees moved to Chimp Haven must receive a physical examination and undergo a quarantine period where their behavior is observed by staff to determine what social groups they should be incorporated into.
"It's not just a science," Spraetz told Country Roads magazine. "It's an art."
The chimps have indoor housing, but they also have large outdoor environments to explore.
Many of the animals have never been outside, felt grass or climbed trees until they arrive at Chimp Haven, where the climate is similar to their native habitat and where they have several species of leaves they can eat.
As the new arrivals from New Iberia Research Center now make their home at Chimp Haven, staff will watch them for signs of improvement, such as improved muscle tone, shinier coats and more playful attitudes.
"The before and after pictures are amazing," Spraetz said. "It's a marked difference. You can see the difference."
Project R&R, an organization working to release chimps from laboratories, believes that there are still about 650 chimpanzees held in government testing and holding facilities.
Watch the video below to learn more about Chimp Haven.
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