Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest is expanding to take in more ‘retired’ research apes at its unlikely location near Cle Elum.
CLE ELUM — The matriarch of Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest is tired of waiting for her dinner.
Her name is Negra, and she expects to be fed on time. Early is OK, too. So she’s peering down from an overhead perch, clapping impatiently as sanctuary co-director Diana Goodrich loads a tray with slices of baked pumpkin, leeks, and bowls of fresh snap peas and pears.
“I know, I know,” Goodrich croons.
By the time Goodrich walks the tray to the open-air veranda where the chimps dine during nice weather, all seven of the sanctuary’s primate residents are lined up more or less in a row, a phalanx of black fur and smacking, prehensile lips.
Slight and blond, Goodrich leans forward and huffs a chimp-style greeting. She begins threading food a chunk at a time through the bars. Except for a little jostling, the chimps wait their turns.
They know the routine. This has been their home since 2008, when they arrived fearful and scarred from years in the windowless basement of a Pennsylvania lab that rented them out for research.
For Goodrich and the staff at what is perhaps the nation’s most unlikely refuge for discarded chimps, those 10 years have been a blessing — and a bit of a surprise.
“We’ve been incredibly lucky that everyone is still here,” she says, passing a chunk of pumpkin to Negra. The oldest at 45, Negra was also the slowest to emerge from her shell, perhaps because she was once kept isolated for 18 months. She’s still a loner and likes to hide under a blanket, but she’s also forged friendships with other chimps and loves to explore.
“She seemed like such an old lady when she arrived,” Goodrich says. “None of us would have guessed she would live this long.”
Now, Goodrich and her team are gearing up to provide similar, second chances for up to 15 more chimps. They recently purchased more land, bringing their total to 90 acres. A new addition includes a veterinary clinic and space for chimps to acclimate and get acquainted. The sanctuary hopes to break ground in the spring on a second indoor-outdoor complex.
The expansion comes as chimpanzee research in the United States enters its final chapter. Experiments on mankind’s closest relative effectively ended three years ago and, for the first time, more chimpanzees live in sanctuaries than laboratories. The National Institutes of Health will retire all but the frailest of its 257 remaining chimps to a federally funded sanctuary in Louisiana within the next several years. But another 200 or so remain in private research facilities, some awaiting space in sanctuaries, others with their fates undecided.
“If we can do something for any of them, rather than having them die in the laboratories, that’s a positive thing,” Goodrich says. She’s also looking beyond the end game for chimps to an even more daunting goal: extending the sanctuary concept to at least some of the thousands of monkeys that live and die in the service of science at labs across the country — including the University of Washington.
But that’s years down the road. Right now, Goodrich is facing seven antsy chimpanzees eager for dessert.
She hands out small, paper-wrapped packets. These “night bags,” filled with nuts, popcorn and dried fruit, are Negra’s favorite, and she’s not about to save the treat for later. With lips and fingers, the chimp rips away the paper, carefully extracts peanuts and pops them in her shelf of a mouth.
ON A FOGGY fall morning, Goodrich opens a remote-control door, and the chimps scramble into their 2-acre, outdoor yard like kids at recess. Despite the double electrified fence, the scene looks almost primal as the apes lope like shadows through the lush, golden grass. Missy, the athlete of the group, gallops up the hill and hoists herself onto a tall wooden tower.
“There’s never a day when they don’t do something that surprises you,” says Goodrich’s husband and sanctuary co-director, J.B. Mulcahy, surveying the scene from a viewing platform he built. He also created a wonderland of elaborate jungle gyms to keep life interesting for a species evolved to roam vast jungle territories.
The air is frosty, a reminder that this is by far the northernmost of the six accredited chimp sanctuaries in the United States.
Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest owes its existence 80 miles southeast of Seattle and 1,500 miles from the closest chimp-research lab to two visionaries: a laid-off biotech worker who nearly bankrupted himself to realize a dream, and a scientist whose pioneering sign-language experiments with chimps brought a generation of budding primatologists to Central Washington University in nearby Ellensburg.
Goodrich and Mulcahy were among those idealistic students, apprenticing with Roger Fouts and his wife, Deborah, in the 1990s and working with the famous signing chimp Washoe and her clan. The animals’ mastery of a human language revolutionized understanding of their intelligence and rich social lives. A chimp named Booee immediately recognized Fouts and began signing his name when the two reunited in a lab in 1995 after 13 years.
The Foutses are retired and the chimps long gone — the two survivors live at Fauna Foundation sanctuary in Quebec — but CWU’s primate behavior and ecology program still attracts students from around the world. When Keith LaChappelle lost his job in 2003 and decided to build a sanctuary, he turned to the experts at CWU for advice.
LaChappelle was inspired by reading about the more than 1,600 surplus research chimps languishing in cramped cages. Bred mainly for AIDS research, the apes proved resistant to the virus and a poor model for the disease despite sharing more than 95 percent of their DNA with humans.
With a $200,000 severance check from his construction manager job at Seattle drug company Immunex, LaChappelle bought an old farm near Cle Elum, where land was affordable and CWU was a half-hour away. He moved his family and began pouring concrete and framing the chimp house. When the money ran out, he learned to solicit donations and build a base of supporters.
He also visited the Fauna Foundation, where he met a chimp named Billy Jo who solidified his resolve. Billy Jo’s teeth were knocked out with a crowbar when he was a baby in the circus. In research labs, the chimp was infected with hepatitis, knocked down more than 60 times with a dart gun, and chewed off his own thumbs. Yet when Billy Jo looked into LaChappelle’s eyes, the man was undone by the chimp’s welcoming gaze.
“If a chimp can endure that much and still want to be friends with a human, I knew I needed to keep going and help other chimps,” says LaChappelle, who stepped down from management a year after the sanctuary opened and now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In spring 2008, he and Mulcahy took turns driving around the clock as they followed the van that carried the seven chimps from the East Coast to Central Washington.
WITH NO PRESSURE to conform to a laboratory schedule, the sanctuary chimps choose how and where to spend their time. Foxie, who was used as a breeder and had all of her babies taken away, likes to play with dolls. Jamie, who arrived with spindly limbs and a habit of plucking her belly bare, is a rambler with a shoe fetish. Now, she’s gesturing for Goodrich to join her on a walk.
But first Goodrich has to change into cowboy boots — Jamie’s favorites. “This routine with the boots took a while to figure out,” she says, pulling on a tan pair. Woman and chimp walk the perimeter of the yard, Jamie knuckling along inside the fence, Goodrich chatting with her companionably from outside.
Burrito, the only male, trails behind Jamie, who is in estrus. Burrito was once part of animal trainer “Jungle Larry’s” menagerie but never learned the mysteries of chimp sex. Though vasectomized, he has the equipment and urges but no idea what to do about it, Goodrich explains.
While the chimps are outside, a brigade of volunteers and staff tackles the never-ending job of cleaning. They scoop poop into industrial dust pans, hose down concrete floors and squeegee them dry. The washing machine and dryer — the sanctuary’s fourth set in 10 years — churn constantly with loads of towels and blankets.
The sanctuary isn’t open to the public, but staff members document the daily goings-on in a blog.
Unlike Chimp Haven in Louisiana, which gets federal money to care for government-owned chimps, private sanctuaries rely on donors and volunteers. With a staff of six and an annual budget of about $450,000, the Cle Elum sanctuary needs to raise $500,000 to complete its expansion. They’re in discussions with at least one chimp facility, but won’t say which.
Though small, Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest is well-respected and could offer a good alternative for chimps still owned by breeders or roadside zoos, or some of the 46 privately owned research apes at Yerkes National Primate Center in Georgia, says primate expert Stephen Ross, director of Project ChimpCARE, which tracks chimps in the United States.
“There are chimps that need homes, chimps that deserve a comfortable life for the rest of their lives,” Ross says. “It’s a moral or ethical obligation that we as humankind have.”
THE SANCTUARY DAY ends soon after dinner, as the chimps drift off to their preferred sleeping spots. Negra tucks herself into a corner of the balcony, trailing a train of colorful fleece blankets. Best friends Annie and Missy snuggle up side-by-side.
By ape standards, all seven are geriatric. Captive chimps can live 50 to 60 years, though many die in their 30s from the accumulated insults of abuse or experimentation. Burrito, the sanctuary’s youngest, is 35 and suffers from congestive heart failure.
Bringing in more chimps will ensure companionship as age takes its inevitable toll, Goodrich explains. But most former research chimps will be gone within the next 20 years.
That’s one of the reasons sanctuaries are quietly beginning to consider the future of research monkeys, nearly 76,000 of which are currently being used to study everything from brain function to vision, paralysis and the Ebola virus. The debate over whether these human relatives are owed any kind of retirement is slowly gaining momentum, just as the chimp debate did 20 years ago, Ross says.
Monkeys are harder because there are so many of them and biomedical research is booming, he points out. There’s no federal funding for monkey retirement, most existing sanctuaries are full and few research centers encourage the practice.
Brown University in Rhode Island does, and recently sent two monkeys to OPR Coastal Primate Sanctuary in Longview, Wash., says Dr. Lara Helwig, the university’s animal-care director. Researchers chipped in to help cover the $8,000 or more it can cost to support an animal for the rest of its life. Knowing monkeys can be retired instead of euthanized also boosts the morale of lab staff, Helwig says.
But many labs resist, partly because they fear being vilified or targeted by animal-welfare activists, says Stephen Helms Tillery, a neuroscientist at Arizona State University.
“They don’t want us talking about our research, but I think we need to be upfront about what we’re doing,” he says.
Helms Tillery inserts electrodes into monkeys’ brains to study arm and hand movements with the goal of creating thought-controlled prostheses. Instead of euthanizing them, he transferred three of his subjects to a sanctuary last year. The Research Animal Retirement Foundation, which he helped create to raise money and awareness, covered some of the cost. The foundation also advocates for research grants to include money for sanctuary.
“I feel that the monkeys put in a lot of effort for our research,” Helms Tillery says. “And maybe we owe them something in return.”
The Washington National Primate Research Center at the University of Washington, which has about 670 monkeys, has never sent any to a sanctuary. They might consider it in the future, but the animals are at a premium, says Dr. Sally Thompson-Iritani, director of the UW’s Office of Animal Welfare. Animals that are still healthy after one study are generally used for another.
Goodrich says she’s hopeful labs eventually will warm to the idea of letting some monkeys go. “But our first priority is to help get more chimpanzees out of laboratories and into sanctuary.”
As the light in the chimp house dims, the females fall silent. Wild chimpanzees sleep in the forest canopy, breaking off branches and lacing them into sturdy platforms. Heeding some ancient impulse, the sanctuary chimps mimic that ritual as best they can. They climb to the upper floor and surround themselves with blankets.
But not Burrito.
Just as he never learned to mate, he never learned to nest. He sometimes goes through the motions — a behavior called phantom nesting, Goodrich explains, watching as the male chimp gets ready for bed in an upstairs nook.
Burrito slings a single blanket around his shoulders like a shawl, and claps his hands. His body sways. Before curling up to sleep, he moves his arms in a vaguely circular pattern — as if gathering boughs in a jungle he’s never seen and never will.