Though the history of these unwilling research subjects may be behind them, the scars of the chimps' past leads to challenges with care. Caring for more than 270 chimpanzees, 20 percent of which are considered elderly with maladies that closely mirror those of human retirees—arthritis, heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure—the job of a caretaker is truly more than a full-time gig. And as a non-intrusive environment, veterinary care can be complicated.
“It is very different being a vet for these chimps than other animals,” Benzer says. “With a dog or cat, I can put my hands on them, feel them, find the source of the pain. Here, we’re hands off, so I observe and suspect. There is a risk with anesthesiology, so we only risk it if it is absolutely necessary. I try to treat without sedation, through smells, visual clues, simply monitoring them.”
But for all the hands-on limitations, these chimps are receiving very high-quality medicine. It is remarkable how similar a chimp’s ailments mirror those of humans, and most are treated with human medication. “One of the busiest places here, besides the kitchen, is the med room,” Benzer quips.
Insulin is used to treat type 2 diabetes, pharmaceuticals for heart disease (40 percent of chimpanzees in captivity develop heart disease, something rarely seen, if ever, in wild chimps). High cholesterol is common, and some suffer from epilepsy, which is particularly difficult to treat, being a noninvasive environment. As for the biomedical research of their past, most of what these chimps were subjected to remains a mystery to caregivers and veterinarians.
“We have no idea what these chimps were given," Benzer says. "As a research facility, by law, they do not have to disclose what the chimps were given. So in the records kept, all we see is, ‘Serum A given at 10 a.m, returned to pen, liver biopsy every month,’ and so on. We simply don’t know what they were given and what kind of side effects they may bring in years to come."
Upon taking the job as the sanctuary’s veterinarian, Benzer began consulting with medical doctors instead of vets to get a better understanding of what these chimps were facing. Now, she makes her daily rounds to the islands, visiting with each group’s caregiver, discussing their behavior, observing the chimps in their habitat and taking action when needed. Equipped with a mobile vet unit (a converted RV), she can do much of the procedures—radiography, dental work and routine testing—directly from the field. She has partnered with Stuart Veterinary Hospitals for MRIs and ultrasounds.
But for all physical and medical ailments these chimps may have, it’s the emotional damage that is the hardest to treat. Most suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, many have anxiety and suffer from depression and some even self-mutilate. Many rock back and forth, an action not observed in the wild, while others simply cannot interact in family groups—a chimp’s natural instinct—and must live in the “Special Needs House.”
Noted as the “saddest place on the property” by Benzer, the special needs house is home to a group of eight chimps that cannot socialize in large groups because of medical conditions or psychological issues. The building gives these chimps the opportunity to live out their lives in relative peace. And though it does not have an island of its own, each day is filled with activities to keep the chimps’ minds sharp and energetic. For instance, Timmy and Cheetah, both rescued from Coulston by way of the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates, are exceptional painters, each with their own style (finger painting or brush) and aesthetic.
“Chimps are incredibly resilient and really live in the present,” said Jen Feuerstein, sanctuary director. “These chimps have shown so much acceptance and forgiveness; they are so much stronger then I am. After being mistreated by humans my entire life, I would hate the species, want nothing to do with them. But these chimps … they are happy. They are happy to see us when we come walking up. They really are remarkable.”
The chimps recognize staff members as they come to the islands. They congregate near the land bridge, which spans the moat, connecting island to night house, and observe and communicate with their human caregivers. As Benzer and I toured the facility, chimps recognized her as the vet—some eyeing her speculatively, others vying for her attention. At Freddy’s island, the alpha of a group of 26, one chimp in particular was keen on grabbing Benzer’s attention, screaming and carrying on. Pushing his way through the other chimps at the barrier, he pointed to a cut he recently received on his back. Then, with much gesticulation and conversation, he pointed out a sulking chimp, Freddy (left), near a water cooler. This tattling, quite the scene to an outsider, made the transgressor rather angry, especially as I stood witness. So, in what I fully believe to be an act of defiance, he filled his mouth water (“He’s going to spit,” Benzer said, turning her back), stormed to the barrier, spit water all over me and walked away with a snort. It was quite funny, especially to the chimps on the island, all of which erupted with shrieks, undoubtedly laughter. Benzer even had a chuckle, “I told you he was going to spit.”
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