In the Federal Chimpanzee Sanctuary System at Chimp Haven located in Keithsville, Louisiana, an aging chimp named Lester, walks a well-worn path along the concrete perimeter walls, avoiding the more than 5-acres of forest available to him and the clicks of fellow chimpanzee residents. As if riddled with an extraordinary case of OCD, he is careful not to touch the patches of grass, always keeping some surface of his hands and body touching the concrete. Lester was bred in captivity, isolated from social contact and used for biomedical research before finally being retired to Chimp Haven. According to researchers, Chimpanzees born or raised in captivity often exhibit behavioral abnormalities in the form of wall walking, head banging, self-mutilation and other harmful or anti-social displays. Normally, over time, they adjust and the behavior ceases, but Lester despite years at the sanctuary, still walks the perimeter daily. Lester's is the story of what can happen when we isolate animals--and humans--in extreme situations for prolonged periods of time.
Chimp Haven, a nonprofit with a government grant, is an answer to a problem for the aging population of chimpanzees used for biomedical research. A 2013 brief by the National Institute of Health (NIH) recommended that all research chimpanzees under NIH care, with the exception of fifty, be retired to the federal sanctuary system. With rising costs of care (upwards of $200,000 per chimp) and the reduced justification for using chimpanzees in light of newer research methods, the recommendations are to be implemented in the next few years.
Chimp Haven has seen success in incorporating over two hundred chimpanzees into functioning social groups. And many of the chimps are exhibiting natural nesting and foraging behavior found in the wild showing further acclimation to their new home. Most of the geriatric chimpanzees suffer from various diseases, including AIDS and hepatitis and must be specially cared for. In addition, some chimps used for prolonged cognitive testing and other research, show signs of aggression, violent behavior and coprophagia (playing with and throwing excrement), and must be kept separated from the larger groups. For this ongoing care, Chimp Haven has a cadre of employees including veterinarians and animal behavioral scientists on site.
A surprising aspect of life at Chimp Haven is the occurrence of unexpected births. Upon arrival at Chimp Haven, all the chimpanzees receive vasectomies, but it has since been discovered that in eighty five percent of chimpanzees this naturally reverses, giving rise to what sanctuary workers are calling "oops babies". The birth of "oops babies" has helped to solidify social groupings but has also created a situation where these new sanctuary-born chimpanzees must remain, along with their retired elders, permanently within sanctuary walls.
I wanted to see what a haven within walls was like for these long-suffering creatures. I found a sanctuary with caretakers dedicated to their charges and forests and lakes boxed in for the pleasure of the chimpanzees. But acclimation has been hard for many, like Lester, whose history of confinement and trauma has borne zoochosis. With the birth of new sanctuary babies, there is a conundrum in the way captive chimpanzees are to be phased out. What does the future hold for these sanctuary babies born within haven walls?