Nine former lab chimpanzees are settling into their new home at a Georgia sanctuary ― with more than 200 others slated to join them.
Project Chimps, a 236-acre facility near Blue Ridge, Georgia, welcomed Buttercup, Charisse, Emma, Genesis, Gertrude, Gracie, Jennifer, Latricia and Samira on Thursday. The all-female crew, ranging from 10 to 12 years of age, came from the University of Louisiana’s New Iberia Research Center. They resided there with 211 others, though the university states that the majority of chimps were housed but never actually used for research.
After the 600-mile journey in transfer cages, the chimps seemed thrilled to reunite on the sanctuary’s “party porch,” an outdoor porch area decorated in honor of their arrival, said primatologist and Project Chimps president Sarah Baeckler Davis.
“As each individual joined the group, there were hugs and kisses and grooming- they seemed so happy to be together again,” she told The Huffington Post in an email. “One of the girls climbed all the way to the top and stared out at the surrounding mountain forest.”
The chimps will live in social groups and have access to forested outdoor space, as well as enrichment like toys and puzzles. Project Chimps has an agreement with New Iberia to take all the chimps from the facility. They currently have the capacity to house about 80 chimps, according to Popular Science, but Baeckler Davis said they are continuing to build and will ultimately be able to house up to 300.
She noted that the chimps did have indoor and outdoor access at their former home. But at the sanctuary, she said, they will be in a facility that is devoted entirely to their well-being.
“[O]ur sole purpose is to provide care to the chimps and give them choices on what they would like to eat, who they would like to spend time with, what toys they’d like to play with, etc.,” she said. “After quarantine, they will also have the ability to go out into the open-top enclosed space to spend time under the trees and foraging through grass. We really can’t wait for that moment.”
The group admits that life in captivity of any form — even at a well-run sanctuary — isn’t as ideal as life in the wild, but chimpanzees used to living in the lab simply lack the survival skills to live in the wild totally on their own.
Research on chimpanzees in the United States has been winding down for several years, a trend spurred by animal advocates and conservationists.
In June 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service granted endangered species status to captive chimps — a designation that previously only applied to wild chimps. The decision prohibited most invasive research on chimps, with exceptions for research that would “benefit the species in the wild” or aid in conservation tactics, Nature.com reported at the time.
Additionally, the National Institutes of Health had been phasing out biomedical research on chimps since 2013. They announced in November 2015 that they would cease all support for any research on chimps and retire the last 50 animals they had been holding in reserve for future research.
The NIH has no affiliation with the chimps being transferred to Project Chimps, according to the sanctuary. Former NIH chimps are being transferred to Chimp Haven, a federally funded sanctuary in Louisiana, though the process of moving all the chimps from NIH labs has come under fire for being slow. The institute announced in 2013 that they would start retiring hundreds of NIH-owned or supported chimps to Chimp Haven ― but nearly 400 still remained in the labs as of January 2016, the Washington Post reported.