DANNY MOGLE, danny@inmagtexas.com

Mason is hungry and growing more impatient by the second. He wants food. Now! He stands and waves his arms over his head as if to say, “Hey, I’m over here!” To make his point absolutely clear, he lets out an ear-piercing screech and waves his arms even more frantically.

The two caregivers in charge of feeding the group of about 20 chimpanzees are more amused than concerned by Mason’s attention-getting antics. From on top of the habitat’s wall, a caregiver tosses down a banana. Mason quickly snatches it and devours it in one really big bite.

Mason is one of 200 chimpanzees who live in Chimp Haven, a 200-acre sanctuary located at Keithville, Louisiana, southwest of Shreveport. The National Chimpanzee Sanctuary is, for lack of a better description, our nation’s official retirement home for chimps. The vast majority were once test subjects in government biomedical research. Others were used in the entertainment industry or kept in homes or unaccredited animal attractions.

At Chimp Haven, all of the animals’ needs will be met for the rest of their lives.

Mason lives in a spacious outdoor habitat covered with pine trees and brush and enclosed by fences and a moat (a natural water barrier that chimps will not cross). He spends his days with his social group climbing trees, digging for bugs, lounging in the sun and getting into skirmishes with his fellow young males.

Other groups of chimps stay in smaller yards and enclosures that have poles, swings, ropes and platforms for them to play on. All the animals have access to indoor space to get out of the weather.

The staff feed the chimps fresh fruits and vegetables and a protein biscuit. Veterinarians provide medical care and help the geriatric chimps deal with the challenges of growing older.

RETIRED CHIMPS

Because chimps are genetically closely related to humans, government scientists for decades infected them with hepatitis (a cause of liver disease), HIV and other diseases in hopes of finding answers that could save human lives.

In 1995, the National Institutes of Health quit breeding chimps for HIV research and increasingly began using other forms of testing. Hundreds of chimps at federal laboratories had nowhere to go. Many had lived in isolation and captivity all their lives

In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed the CHIMP (Chimpanzee Health Improvement Maintenance Protection) Act into law. It called for the funding and building of a national sanctuary. Caddo Parish, Louisiana, donated the land.

When the first phase of construction was completed in 2005, Rita and Teresa became Chimp Haven’s first residents. Many more chimps followed, including more than 100 that were once housed at the New Iberia Research Center in New Iberia, Louisiana, one of the largest primate research facilities in the world

The U.S. government pays 75 percent of the cost of caring for the chimps that were used in federal research. Chimp Haven has to come up with the rest of the money and all the funds needed to care for chimps that came from citizens.

The sanctuary relies on donations, grants and funding from its visitation and education programs to pay the bills.

In 2013, the National Institutes of Health announced it no longer would use chimpanzees in research. Any remaining in facilities, such as the Southwest National Primate Research Center in San Antonio, would eventually end up at Chimp Haven.

Chimp Haven, animal rights groups and private donors are raising millions of dollars to build more forested habitats and support facilities to be able to accommodate, what could be, as many as 300 more chimps in the next few years.

Overseeing the expansion is Cathy Willis Spraetz, Chimp Haven’s president and executive officer.

BETTER LIVES

Spraetz spent most of her career leading nonprofit organizations that focused on domestic violence and serving people with disabilities. She was not sure that animal activism would be right for her.

And then she saw Henry.

“When I walked up the steps to the administration building to interview for the position, Henry was sitting on one of the tallest perches (in an enclosure next the building),” she recalled. “He was staring at me and I let out an audible gasp. And it was at that point that I felt a shift in my thinking and a shift in my heart and I knew I was meant to be here.”

Sitting in her office, Spraetz becomes emotional when she talks about Henry, the only chimp at the sanctuary that was rescued from an abusive owner.

“In his last home, he was so large and strong that his owner had to keep him in a cage and unfortunately it was a 5-by-5-by-7 cage. He lived in that cage for approximately 15 years, mostly in the dark.”

Henry was rescued after a neighbor of the owner notified authorities.

“Henry was very, very sick. He couldn’t even stand up he was so weak and he had ulcers from his head to his toes. They took him to the Houston Zoo where he recuperated for a couple of months until they felt he was strong enough to come to Chimp Haven.

“Even when he came here there was concern that he may not make it but he continued to recover. It took over two years to socialize Henry to the other chimpanzees because … he was probably taken from his mother at birth and he had never been around other chimpanzees so he didn’t know chimpanzee behavior. Fast forward to today and Henry is an alpha male.”

Many people don’t realize that chimpanzees cannot be domesticated, Spraetz said.

“They are wild animals. They are territorial. They are aggressive. When they are babies, they are very cuddly and cute but they quickly grow from being that cute cuddly baby to being a very willful chimpanzee. By the age of 5, they are impossible to control. They do not make good pets.”

NATURAL BEHAVIOR

At the feeding of Mason and his group, all is going well. The chimps are enjoying the lettuce, broccoli, oranges and bananas provided to them.

Rita, the oldest chimp at the sanctuary, slowly moves in from the woods and grabs a slice of orange while Magnum, this group’s alpha male, appears content to watch from the side.

Two energetic young males begin fighting over a banana. They run at each other, let out a bunch of screams and briefly slap at each other.

Two other chimps on the edge of the tree line are more concerned with grooming each other than eating. They stop only after the caregivers throw food within their easy reach.

Spraetz said these natural behaviors are exactly what they want to see.

To keep the chimps mentally sharp and curious, the staff hides treats in their habitats and exposes them to music and other unfamiliar sights and sounds.

“Chimps are very, very curious, very intelligent animals. It is really critical that any captive animal has things in their environment to keep them engaged and interested,” Spraetz said.

The mission of Chimp Haven includes educating the public about chimp behavior and the plight of chimps in the wild.

According to Chimp Haven’s website, only about 150,000 chimps remain in African countries on and near the equator. Since 1960, the chimp population has declined by one half. Experts attribute the decline to loss of their habitat to logging, mining and drilling for oil.

Chimp Haven opens its doors to the public during Chimpanzee Discovery Days held each spring and fall. Visitors view the chimps and visit with the staff. During the sanctuary’s Chimp Chat & Chew outreach programs, guests receive a behind-the-scenes tour of the facilities.

Most of these visitors have never seen a chimpanzee and are fascinated by their human-like behavior, Spraetz said.

“I think the reason we are drawn to chimpanzees is because they are so much like us. They all have very different personalities and look different. I think that from the untrained eye you might think they all look alike but they don’t. They all have unique characteristics and faces and likes and dislikes.”

 
 

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