Chimp Haven, Louisiana’s sprawling sanctuary for retired research chimps, has moved 11 residents into a new open-air corral. Part of a $20 million expansion, the recreation area has 15,000 square feet for playing, climbing and exploring.
“It’s very exciting to see the chimps discover their new space,” said Rana Smith, president and chief executive officer of Chimp Haven. “The move brings us one step closer to our goal of transitioning as many chimpanzees as possible to sanctuary retirement.”
Located outside Shreveport, 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 facility is home to nearly 300 chimpanzees, more than any sanctuary of its kind in the world, with more primate residents arriving later this year. Chimps will soon move into the second of the two new open-air corrals as the sanctuary continues construction of three new multi-acre forested habitats.
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.
There are now more chimps living in accredited sanctuaries than there are in research facilities in the United States.
The momentum for that feat began in December 2017 when a new group was relocated from Alamogordo Primate Facility in New Mexico to Chimp Haven, where they will live out their days in retirement.
"I always hoped, but never imagined, that in my lifetime we would actually see the release of all of these chimpanzees to the joys and opportunities of sanctuary. This is incredibly special to witness and help make happen," said Amy Fultz, animal behaviorist and co-founder of Chimp Haven, in a statement.
Opening a sanctuary
The creators of Chimp Haven envisioned their sanctuary as a place these primates could live a fuller life, and they set to work to make their dream a reality.
The Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection or CHIMP Act, signed into law in 2000, established a federally funded retirement system for chimpanzees no longer needed for research. Then, 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 Institutes of Health (NIH).
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. From then until 2013, more chimps made their way to the Louisiana haven.
In 2013, NIH announced it would begin phasing out research on chimpanzees, which significantly increased the number of chimpanzees moving to Chimp Haven for retirement.
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.
Making chimps feel at home
The chimps have indoor housing, but they also have large outdoor environments to explore, including trees to climb and other types of enrichment. The climate is similar to their native habitat and where they have several species of leaves they can eat.
When new arrivals make their home at Chimp Haven, staff watch them for signs of improvement, such as improved muscle tone, shinier coats and more playful attitudes.
"Chimpanzees are a resilient species, and they thrive here at sanctuary," adds Smith. "They are offered an enriching environment in which they can enjoy retirement and spend their remaining years as they choose."
In 2018, world-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall visited the facility and said, "For chimpanzees in captivity, it's pretty well perfect." See the video of her visit above.
There's more work to be done. As of August 2018, Project R&R, an organization working to release chimps from laboratories, believes that there are still about 577 chimpanzees held in government testing and holding facilities.
As Goodall said when visiting the facility: "Chimpanzees are so like people. They deserve to live with dignity and have our respect."
Editor's note: This story was originally published in July 2014 and has been updated with new information.