It was a long and difficult road, but 110 former laboratory chimpanzees are now living the good life, far from the cages and experimentation that dominated their existence for decades.
The last of these lucky primates, ranging in age from 1 to 50, have arrived at Chimp Haven, the organization announce on July 2. There they will spend the remainder of their lives in comfort, able to play and interact with other chimps. It’s a joyous time for them after years spent locked away and tormented as government-funded research subjects.
Chimp Haven, a 200-acre facility located in Keithville, La., is the designated National Chimpanzee Sanctuary. Since 1995, it has provided permanent lifelong sanctuary for chimpanzees retired or rescued from biomedical research, the entertainment industry and private owners.
A Two-Year Journey From a Lab to a Life Worth Living
The bumpy road to sanctuary for the began in 2012, when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) decided to retire 110 of its research chimps from the now notorious New Iberia Research Center (NIRC).
Initially the NIH’s plan was to send only 10 chimps to Chimp Haven and the other 100 to the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio. While they would not have been used further for active research in Texas, living in that facility wasn’t exactly the type of “retirement” most people wanted for these chimps.
It was simply an unacceptable outcome in the opinion of Chimp Haven’s president and CEO, Cathy Willis Spraetz.
“When we learned that all of the chimpanzees would not be retired to Chimp Haven, we felt they were being robbed of what was promised to them in the [Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection] Act, signed into law in 2000 and reauthorized in 2013,” Spraetz said in a press release.
The CHIMP Act provided that government-owned chimpanzees no longer needed for research would be retired to the National Chimpanzee Sanctuary, not sent to live in a lab.
Chimp Haven wanted to take in all of the NIRC chimps, but as of late 2012 didn’t have the facilities to care for so many. It needed to expand substantially to be able to house and properly care for them. In addition to the normal needs of chimpanzees, Chimp Haven has to be prepared to handle a variety of significant and permanent health conditions such as HIV and hepatitis affecting many of the chimp residents.
The group began an aggressive fundraising campaign called the Road to Chimp Haven. Its ambitious goal: to raise $5 million to cover construction and initial care expenses.
Generous donations from the National Anti-Vivisection Society, the American Anti-Vivisection Society, the New England Anti-Vivsection Society, the Humane Society of the United States and animal activists Bob Barker and Anita Hirsh enabled Chimp Haven to realize its dream. According to Chimp Haven:
Since the start of construction last year, six play areas have been completed which enabled the sanctuary to complete the transitioning phase for the chimpanzees. Currently, several bedrooms and one large open play ground are nearing completion which will allow more room for future growth.
Thanks to over 8,000 Care2 petition signatures and the many animal organizations and activists who raised funds and lobbied hard for these chimps, the NIH changed its mind. It agreed to retire all 110 of its NIRC chimpanzees to Chimp Haven.
“It was necessary to devise a plan that would offer a safe and caring atmosphere, one where these chimpanzees can live the rest of their lives in large social groups and determine on their own how they will spend their days, ” Spraetz said. “We, along with many others, felt that environment could only be achieved at Chimp Haven and thank NIH for reconsidering the plans for these chimpanzees.”
Undercover Work Revealed Disturbing Practices at New Iberia Lab
In 2009, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) placed an undercover investigator inside the New Iberia Research Center for nine months. Watch this video to see what HSUS revealed about how NIRC treated these chimps and other primates:
“In no lab I have visited have I seen so many chimpanzees exhibit such intense fear. The screaming I heard when chimpanzees were being forced to move toward the dreaded needle in their squeeze cages was, for me, absolutely horrifying,” renowned primate expert Dr. Jane Goodall told HSUS.
Thankfully, for the federally funded NIH chimps now living at Chimp Haven, this nightmare is over.
“We are thrilled that this great day has finally arrived,” Spraetz said. “Many organizations and individuals have worked tirelessly to ensure these chimpanzees would have a new beginning in a sanctuary environment. Our dreams have finally been realized for these amazing animals.”
The work isn’t done, however. “Because of the generosity of our donors, we have made great strides for these beautiful animals,” Spraetz said. “However, the public’s help is needed to close the $2 million funding gap that still remains and must be earmarked for their daily care for the remainder of their lives.”
This was one more wonderful step towards completion of NIH’s plan to retire 300 laboratory chimps. The bad news, however, is that the New Iberia Research Center is still up and running and still experimenting on primates. Only the federally funded chimps owned by the NIH were retired from that lab.
A heartbreaking 230 chimpanzees, along with other primates, are still owned by NIRC or others. They remain at that facility, suffering daily. When will their day of freedom arrive?