A group of nine female chimpanzees just took a 16-hour road trip of a lifetime.
Jennifer, Charisse, Buttercup, Latricia, Samira, Gertrude, Emma, Genesis and Gracie have spent their lives as scientific research subjects at the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana. Now they’re retired, due to the phasing-out of invasive medical research on chimpanzees across the U.S.
On Thursday morning they arrived at the new Project Chimps sanctuary in Morganton, Georgia, to move into their new home.
The arrival of these nine chimps marks the beginning of an unprecedented partnership between the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Project Chimps that will eventually relocate more than 200 retired chimpanzees. This is the first time a non-federal program has arranged to release its entire population of research chimps.
The 236-acre sanctuary is located in northern Georgia along a temperate rainforest, with rolling hills and a lush, green landscape. In addition to office buildings, a full veterinary clinic and a swanky kitchen designed by celebrity chef Rachael Ray, there are currently four “villas” that can house 10-15 chimps each, and one larger “group building” that can house two groups of 10-15 chimps.
Those buildings have indoor and outdoor spaces that back up to an open-air, enclosed forest habitat that all the chimpanzees will share. For now, however, the chimps will stay in quarantine, which is standard practice.
“It’s basically just an opportunity for us to get to know them and for them to get to know us, and keep an eye on whether there are any parasites that they could pick up here locally,” Sarah Baeckler Davis, president and CEO of Project Chimps, tells Mashable.
Baeckler Davis a primatologist who was the executive director of North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance (NAPSA) prior to launching Project Chimps in 2014 says getting to know the chimps and helping them acclimate to the new space is the highest priority right now.
“It’s really a process of building friendship and building trust.”
“We have the philosophy that we take them on their terms. Some chimps warm up in the new place and are comfortable right away. Other chimps are a little more nervous or untrusting, and take a while longer. It’s really a process of building friendship and building trust between our caregivers and our residents,” she says.
Those caregivers make up what Baeckler Davis calls a “dream team” a group of experts trained in chimp behavior that she hand picked from her 20 years of experience in the chimpanzee sanctuary field. That includes Mike Seres, director of chimpanzee socialization (Baeckler Davis calls him their “chimp whisperer”), whose job it is to form each group of chimps. These groups, like the inaugural nine, are selected based on their social habits. In other words, Seres makes sure all the research center’s chimps are traveling to Georgia with their closest friends.
The pace at which additional chimps will move to the sanctuary depends on their comfort levels and how long it takes for the initial groups of chimps to meet and interact. In the future, it will also depend on funding and the building of additional villas on the property.
“I expect we’ll probably be welcoming somewhere around 30 or so before the end of the year,” Baeckler Davis says. “We’ll keep bringing them into the buildings, and as they clear quarantine, that’s when we’ll start doing some of the mixing.”
The opening of the Project Chimps sanctuary follows a steady shift away from controversial biomedical research on chimpanzees across the country. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) began significantly phasing out its funding of federal research on chimps in 2013, and announced it would be retiring its 50 remaining chimpanzees in November 2015.
“It is time to acknowledge that there is no further justification for the 50 chimpanzees to continue to be kept available for invasive biomedical research,” NIH director Francis Collins wrote to the agency’s administrators.
NIH also ended its support for chimps that it used for research, but did not own approximately 360 remaining around the U.S. Now the private institutions that own them, like the New Iberia Research Center, are following suit. However, due to limited space at existing sanctuaries such as Chimp Haven in Louisiana and Save the Chimps in Florida the creation of new refuges like Project Chimps is crucial.
“We know that they can experience joy and sorrow and grief, and all of the same kinds of emotions that we do.”
While Baeckler Davis doesn’t have information on what these nine chimps were used for specifically, she says that biomedical research on chimpanzees has historically focused on HIV/AIDS and hepatitis research. But the science simply didn’t check out.
“As similar to us as [chimps] are, they generally don’t turn out to be very good models for our diseases,” she says.
There was a “glut” of chimp breeding in the 1980s and 1990s, she explains, to study HIV and AIDS. Scientists believed chimps, our closest relatives, would be the obvious subjects.
“As it turns out, after much wasted time and money, they never get AIDS. So you can infect them with HIV, but it never progresses,” Baeckler Davis says.
For other types of invasive biomedical research, such as developing certain antiviral drugs and antibody therapies, advances in technology and the creation of alternative research methods have rendered the use of chimpanzees unnecessary.
The practice raised financial and ethical questions, too. It’s expensive to care for chimps in captivity approximately $20,000 per chimp per year and given that our genetic similarities are so similar, the public began to wonder whether it was right to conduct invasive research on them.
“We know that they can experience joy and sorrow and grief, and all of the same kinds of emotions that we do,” Baeckler Davis says. “I think that really drove the public conversation in terms of, is it OK to be doing this when we know that they experience the world in the way we do?”
In the midst of that public conversation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classified captive chimpanzees as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act in June 2015, which effectively ended experimentation on the apes. (Wild populations had already been listed as “endangered” since 1990.)
“Especially with privately owned chimps, the writing really is on the wall in terms of research,” Baeckler Davis says.
And that signal for an end to controversial chimp research hasn’t just galvanized primatologists, activists and nonprofits a number of celebrities have joined the effort, too.
Project Chimps in particular has a number of high-profile supporters.
Tattoo artist Kat Von D, best known for her role in the show LA Ink, is one of Project Chimps’ founding supporters. She donated money for the creation of one of the sanctuary’s villas, and also rolled up her sleeves during a volunteer week to get the site ready. She also named one of the lipsticks in her cosmetics line to help the cause, with proceeds going toward the organization.
There’s also Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and his wife Adrienne, tennis superstar Serena Williams, actress Judy Greer and singer-songwriter P!NK.
And, of course, there’s the Chimp Kitchen donated by Rachael Ray, which Baeckler Davis says is “by far the fanciest spot on the property” and where the staff will prepare meals for the chimps. While they mostly eat fresh fruit and vegetables, the kitchen allows them to add complexity to their diets, like fruit smoothies for breakfast and even sometimes spaghetti or oatmeal, “just to keep things interesting,” she says.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the celebrity support Project Chimps has received is the ability to spread awareness, especially through social media. The site in Georgia is poised to become one the largest chimp sanctuaries in the U.S., and it will need more help to make that growth sustainable.
“It’s a very expensive endeavor, and it’s a long-term commitment, so we’ve been really looking for creative ways to make connections with people who will engage in our work and grow with us,” Baeckler Davis says. “We’ll need dedicated, excited supporters on many levels for a really long time.”
Originally found athttp://mashable.com/