Update: The first nine chimps arrived at the sanctuary on Sept. 8. Jennifer, Charisse, Buttercup, Latricia, Samira, Gertrude, Emma, Genesis and Gracie are settling in and enjoying retirement.
In this sprawling 236-acre facility near Blue Ridge, Georgia, brand-new residents will have indoor and outdoor recreation areas, a kitchen with a smoothie bar and a view of the North Georgia mountains. And no one will poke or prod them anymore.
In the coming weeks, nine chimpanzees will move into Project Chimps, a new sanctuary that will eventually be home to up to 300 chimps. These are among the last research chimps in the United States.
When the government came to the conclusion that it no longer made sense to do experiments on chimpanzees, the animals that had been used in research needed to find new homes. Signed in 2000, the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection Act (known as the CHIMP Act) provided for lifetime care for chimps used in federally funded research. These animals found a retirement home at the Chimp Haven sanctuary in Keithville, Louisiana.
But chimps used by private research facilities didn't have the same kind of golden parachute in place for retirement, says Sarah Baeckler Davis, Project Chimps’ president and CEO. Knowing there would be a need to find a place for those animals, Baeckler Davis met with members of the sanctuary community to try to fill it.
She reached out to New Iberia Research Center, part of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in Louisiana, which housed one of the largest populations of research chimps left in the country. The researchers were open to partnering with a sanctuary to retire the more than 200 chimps at once, so Baeckler Davis went back to the sanctuary community to find help.
"I went back and said, 'Who wants all these chimps?' and not surprisingly, no one was jumping up and down saying, 'Pick me! Pick me!' because there wasn’t any space anywhere at the time."
But it was too late to turn back.
"Having been there and having looked into the eyes of the chimps and not being able to convince anyone else to take it on, it sort of came to the point where I couldn’t not take on the puzzle knowing there was this opportunity to retire those 220 chimps that were there."
Baeckler Davis had heard about a property in North Georgia that had been used for a short time as a gorilla sanctuary. Her newly formed group partnered with the Humane Society of the United States and received funding help from several other organizations to get started, and Project Chimps was born.
About the facility
The sanctuary already had 13 buildings in various states of completion when Project Chimps took over, so the facility was about three-quarters of the way finished, says Baeckler Davis.
There are five habitat buildings with indoor and outdoor caged play areas. They back up to six acres of open-air habitat. In the beginning, the chimps will be in quarantine, but they will eventually be able to go out into those six acres of greenspace. The habitats are surrounded by the 200-plus acres of woods and other facilities that make up the rest of the sanctuary. The chimps won't have access to that land at this point.
"These are chimps coming from the lab and although we would like to see them go off into the trees, it will be a while before they feel comfortable in those sorts of open spaces," says Baeckler Davis. "We'll give them a couple months in more familiar surrounding ... because even just the feeling of dirt for some chimps that have been in captivity can be intimidating. We have to help them adjust to their lives before giving them new experiences."
Although many of these chimps coming from New Iberia have had that experience, others haven't, she says. Though it may sound counterintuitive, the animals may not want to leave the concrete and cages for quite some time because it's comforting.
"Sometimes we see a chimp that will go out in a beautiful space but will only go out as far as she can touch the wall."
The facility has a vet clinic and a full-time vet, as well as a kitchen designed and renovated by celebrity chef Rachel Ray. Featuring a smoothie bar and walk-in cooler, the kitchen is situated with a window looking out into the habitat. That way the curious residents can peek in and see what's for lunch or dinner.
"For chimps, especially in a sanctuary, food and mealtime is a huge part of their day, so it's great to be able to involve them in that, especially in a safe way," Baeckler Davis says.
Welcoming the chimps
The chimps will come in small groups of about nine or 10 at a time. About 60 to 80 of them are expected to be moved in within the first year, during the first phase of the relocation. Eventually, all 220 chimps from New Iberia will be moved to Project Chimps, and there will still be room for any other research chimps that still might need a home.
Moving the chimps to the new facility will be a delicate process. They'll arrive in the same social groups they were in while in New Iberia, where they were divided by sex and roughly by age, which aren't fully natural groups, says Baeckler Davis.
The goal is to eventually integrate them into groups with males and females. Mike Seres, the sanctuary's director of chimpanzee management, will be responsible for creating those new social groups, but he'll accomplish that by following the chimps' timelines.
"We call him the chimp whisperer," Baeckler Davis says. "Mike is one of the experts in the world of putting chimps together. He sort of has a sense about these things. It's very careful and it's very much at the chimps' pace. You cant just throw a bunch of chimps together and let them work it out."
It happens in pairs at first, where the chimps can just see each other, but still not be able to access each other. Then if that goes well, then can touch between the bars. If those signs are all positive, then then can meet. It's a very carefully controlled process and can take some time. After that, pairs are introduced, until groups are formed.
Why this is notable
This is obviously not the first animal sanctuary, but it may be the last one necessary for chimps that come from the world of experimentation.
"It's really a watershed moment for chimps in research. Being able to essentially provide retirement for this final group that hadn’t been spoken for really ensures that invasive research can't be conducted anymore. I'm really proud of that.
Eventually, the Project Chimps site will have a webcam and promises images on social media. But there are no plans for tours or visitors, other than the occasional chance for supporters or community members to possibly stop by, but from a guided and safe distance so it doesn't impact the chimp.
"They're retired and done with work and done with being on display. We're here to make their lives happy and keep them busy and engaged and that's the priority."