10 Rescued Lab Chimpanzees Arrive at 'Project Chimps' for a Second Chance at Life

They walked off their transport vehicle clutching blankies like little kids, but the newest group of chimpanzees to enter the Project Chimps sanctuary in Georgia include some of the oldest animals on the grounds. These 10 chimps were recently rescued as part of an unprecedented agreement with the New Iberia Research Center (NIRC), which agreed to retire its population of more than 200 privately owned lab chimps to the 236-acre sanctuary in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

As of Sept. 14, 2015, all chimps, both wild and captive, were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). That fateful day marked the effective end of unrestricted, invasive experiments on chimpanzees here in the United States.

Project Chimps founding board member and notable animal law attorney Bruce Wagman worked alongside the Humane Society of the United States in this decades-long fight. The HSUS provided the capital to purchase the Project Chimps property, but the organization also had the help of some celebrity friends, including founding board member Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day and his wife Adrienne, as well as Rachael Ray, Pink and Kat Von D, who are donors. The villa where the 10 new chimps reside, plus a next-door group of six males, was made possible by Kat Von D.

With the continued support of the Humane Society, Project Chimps is committed to constructing more habitats and to raising the funding needed to empty the entire NIRC lab of chimpanzees over the next few years. This amazing sanctuary is night-and-day different from a research lab: It’s filled with forests, fresh fruits and vegetables and 39 other chimps who receive veterinary care, climb trees, forage under open skies, choose their friends and in some cases, reunite with long-lost family members.

Ali Crumpacker, the Executive Director at Project Chimps, tells PEOPLE that most “if not all of these chimpanzees were born at the research center.” The staff does not know exactly what type of testing they’ve been subjected to, but it’s clear they haven’t had the opportunity to “just be chimps.” Thankfully, the sanctuary provides the animals with the comfort and support they need to grow into more confident chimps and, hopefully, shed any past trauma.

“Many have been reared by humans, they have been separated into same-age and same-sex groups, thus not benefiting from having elder role models or experiences [interacting] with younger generations,” says Crumpacker. “This is an artificial environment for such social and sentient beings. They have some trauma, triggers and special needs. Project Chimps provides expert staff who can assess the chimps’ behaviors and create a plan to help reduce or resolve their anxieties, [including] introducing them to other chimpanzees with greater life experience and appropriate social skills.”

For example, one of the new chimps to arrive is 28-year-old Precious, who suffers from chronic kidney disease. After a 30-day adjustment period at Project Chimps, Precious will finally get the chance to reunite with her daughter, 9-year-old Loretta, who came to the sanctuary a while back.

“Sadly, Loretta was not raised by Precious for more than her first few weeks of life. Captive chimpanzees … lack role-models and group support to teach them how to be good mothers. While we don’t know the details, it is unlikely that Precious had the skill set to raise Loretta on her own,” says Crumpacker. “We could be pleasantly surprised and perhaps they will recognize each other! At the least, they may become good friends. Only time will tell.”

Because many of the NIRC chimps were part of a breeding program, some of the new arrivals are related to others already living at Project Chimps. “They are mothers, aunts, cousins, siblings and half-siblings,” says Kitty Block, Acting President and CEO of the HSUS and President of Humane Society International. “It will likely take some time for the chimpanzees to recognize their immediate relatives, because they lived separately from one another at NIRC, but in time we hope they will become one large, happy family.”

Precious and her transport group — including Jurita, 29; Jamie, 29; Jill, 28; Torian, 10; Tiffany, 10; Tristen, 9; Sophia, 9; Krystal, 8; and Haylee, 8 — must complete a 30-day adjustment period before they’re able to socialize with the other, more established sanctuary residents.

“This is both to protect everyone’s health but also allows the new chimps to settle in … we have to remember that everything is new and overwhelming: new caregivers, new food, new routines,” Crumpacker tells PEOPLE. “After one month, the new group will begin to explore the outdoor habitat, and at that point, they can also go and visit the chimpanzees living in other villas.”

All of the animals at Project Chimps have unique life stories, but unfortunately not all are known. Thanks to Dr. Jane Goodall and other animal advocates, Hercules and Leo, who arrived in March 2018, have the most publicized story.

“The pair was forced to walk upright with electrodes imbedded into their muscles for the study of locomotion by a New York research lab,” explains Crumpacker. “We can tell that many of the other chimps have emotional scars, though we don’t know what may have caused them … Arthur, for example, has yet to go outside into our six-acre forested habitat, preferring to spend his days inside while his group mates go out and explore. The earth, trees and open sky above are, sadly, unfamiliar to most of the chimpanzees and some are slow to embrace the outdoors.”

“Identical twins Buttercup and Charisse immediately cling to each other and rock from side to side whenever a new person or new experience is presented to them. Buttercup, in particularly, was so fearful she wouldn’t follow her twin sister when Charisse tried to go outdoors,” Crumpacker tells PEOPLE. “Our caregivers have been working to reduce their stress and, recently, Buttercup joined Charisse in the outdoor habitat.”

Although the Project Chimp staff can only speculate, it does seem like each new group of chimps settles in faster and with less apprehension than the ones who came before them. The dozens of chimpanzees in residence now tend to greet each new transport truck with pants and hoots, flocking to the windows to catch a glimpse of their new neighbors. “Chimpanzees are very intelligent beings and they all seem to understand what the truck means. Arrival days are very exciting days for our current residents!” says Crumpacker.

Project Chimps continues to welcome new volunteers and invites everyone to follow its updates on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. It also maintains an Amazon Wish List of needed foods (like apple sauce, peanuts and even Shredded Wheat) and other items (like toys, tools and storage bins) for the chimps. Click on projectchimps.org to learn other ways you can support these special survivors.

 

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