Beneath the tall pine trees, in the tall grasses of rural Cle Elum is the non-profit Chimp Sanctuary NW. Seven chimps, between the ages of 32 and 42, have enjoyed the fresh air for nearly seven years.
“So this is Burrito,” sanctuary co-director Diana Goodrich says, gesturing to a chimp getting ready to eat his breakfast. “He’s the youngest, as well as the only male of the group. This is Negra lying down, being groomed by Missy. That’s Foxy with her two Troll dolls there. And this is Jody who is giving you a nice greeting.”
Sunshine and squirrels are fairly new concepts to these animals. Goodrich says the chimps have spent most of their lives in cramped, windowless labs, sometimes in complete isolation.
“They were all used in hepatitis vaccine safety trials. Which meant a lot of liver biopsies, sometimes wedge biopsies where they actually take a little piece of the liver and test it,” Goodrich said. “And then most of the females, with the exception of Jamie, were also used in breeding. So they had babies and the babies were taken away right away. In the wild, normally, chimps raise their young for five to eight years. Jody, for example, she had 11 pregnancies in the span of 14 years and the babies were taken from her right away so she never had a chance to raise her young.”
Some of these chimps were plucked straight from the wild, as babies, their parents killed before it became illegal. So their entire existence has been in captivity.
“When they first came, they looked like concentration camp victims. Comparing the photos, it always gets to me. When you see a photo of, say, Jody when she first arrived, her muscles were atrophied, her skin was really really pale from not being exposed to the sunlight, her hair was really sparse and she just had this vacant look in her eyes,” Goodrich said. “Now Jody will be exploring all on her own, way, way up on the hill. It’s just a level of independence that I don’t think she’s probably ever experienced.”
When the chimps first arrived, they were intimidated by the open sky and two acres of land they had to explore.
“The day that we let them out, it was amazing. They all went outside, they were hugging each other, they were super excited,” Goodrich said. “And then, a couple days later, a few of them thought, ‘Wow, that was really crazy that we went out there.’ so they spent the next week just looking at it and didn’t go back outside. It took a lot of courage for a lot of them to realize that this was okay and that it was home.”
Now that they’re comfortable in their environment, it’s easy to see that each chimps has a very different, very defined personality and plenty of quirks. Foxy is always carrying around a Troll doll, or a Dora the Explorer.
“Jamie, for whatever reason, loves cowboy boots. And they have to be very specific cowboy boots. She’ll continue to gesture until we get it right,” Goodrich said.
Their intelligence makes it hard to justify keeping them in cages for testing or entertainment.
“If you just spend five minutes with them you realize they have a really rich social life, they’re very intelligent,” Goodrich said. “They have the same emotions, the same kind of memory span as humans. So it is very similar to putting a human in a cage.”
Of course, there is the argument that these animals can save countless human lives as a result of the testing that’s done. But Goodrich says that’s not actually true.
“I am definitely pro-science and really interested in medical testing but don’t believe, ethically, that we have the right to test on chimpanzees,” she said. “And there’s been a lot of research, particularly with chimpanzees, that has shown that we don’t really learn what we think we’re going to learn from them. Even though they’re very close, genetically, to us, there’s that much difference that they react differently.”
“HIV is a great example of that,” Goodrich said. “There were a lot of chimps bred in the 80’s to be used for HIV testing. They just don’t develop AIDS the same way that we do. Their bodies kind of reject the virus. So the federal government commissioned a report that looked into all the research that’s being done on chimps. Their goal was just to look at it scientifically, like, ‘do we need to be doing this?’ And basically they determined, ‘no we don’t.'”
There are about 680 chimps being used for research in the United States right now, half of them owned by private companies. But the federal government will soon be releasing all but 50 of their chimps to sanctuaries. Diana says the same medical research can be done, and is being done in some cases, using computer models.
Chimp Sanctuary NW is a non-profit that relies completely on donations. On May 30th, 2015 they’re holding a fundraising gala to celebrate seven years since the seven chimps arrived at the sanctuary.