The family groups themselves are remarkable social collectives. “Dr. Noon was very specific on wanting to make Save the Chimps as close to a wild environment as possible in a sanctuary setting,” Feuerstein says. “So we arranged the groups in a range of ages and sex.”
Upon arrival to the island sanctuary, many of the chimps had never touched grass. They were wary of the new environment and the openness of it. But after a while, they took to the new home, either running and playing on the island or sticking close to the night house, creating nests. The chimps tapped into a primal instinct and began acting like chimpanzees.
“They are truly acting like they would if they were in the wild. Sixty-five percent of their time is spent grooming and sleeping,” Feuerstein says. “You may think they are just sitting around, but, well, that’s what wild chimps do. They do run and play, strut the island in that confident chimp way, but for the most part they are acting as a family of wild chimps would.”
In the end, the best remedy for the emotional scars built up over years of exploitation is the sanctuary itself. Noon knew this and fought tirelessly for it, Feuerstein says: “Dr. Noon was really singled minded when it came to chimps; she just wanted to save them."
“This place is a godsend,” Benzer adds. “When was the last time you saw a chimp in captivity walk more than 10 paces? Here, they can walk, run, climb, do the things they would do in the wild. It is amazing to see how they have taken to this place, going from cramped and confined cages to this openness. Some of these chimps had never touched grass, never seen the sun; it is really amazing to see these chimps take to this place.”
The mission of Save the Chimps is ongoing and permanent. With a staff of 53 and a growing corps of volunteers, the sanctuary strives for safety and consistency—routine. “Chimps are really like humans; they like routine but also like some variety,” says Feuerstein.
The daily routine consists of breakfast of fresh fruits, vegetables, and monkey chow in the sanctuary house, which allows for staff to make it out onto the islands to clean and plant “environmental manipulations”—snacks, toys, small things hidden throughout the island to stimulate the chimps. Lunch follows in the sanctuary house: “they love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, we make lots of PB&Js as well as oat meal, pasta and rice,” says Feuerstein. Staff again cleans (“there is always lots of shredded paper,”), and plants more toys and activities for the chimps. Dinner follows, giving the chimps three solid meals a day, much of which is donated from local farms. In-between, the chimps can come and go as they please, a freedom most had never known before.
The three-year goal is to reach maximum capacity of 300 chimps, which would entail a 13th island and 28 more chimps—“I could find another 28 chimps in a heartbeat, we just don’t have the room yet,” says Feuerstein. But more immediate facility needs are on the ‘to-do list,’ including the construction of a maintenance facility; an expansion of the kitchen facility, which was originally built to handle just 28 chimps, but now facilitates the feeding of more than 270 chimps on property; and an extension of the Special Needs building, to give the eight chimps a “space to experience the grass, the sun, just be a chimp.”
The long-term goal is a little more grandiose: a future where sanctuaries are no longer needed; meaning chimps will no longer be used for biomedical research, in the entertainment industry and outlawing the pet trade. The only way for this to happen is the U.S. government and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to officially classify chimpanzees as an endangered species within the United States, effectively closing all loopholes allowing for the exploitation of chimpanzees. As it stands, the FWS proposed an amendment to both houses of Congress, granting chimpanzees the full protection of the Endangered Species Act: The Great Ape Protection and Cost Saving Act of 2011 [H.R. 1513; S.810]; the House bill was referred to committee. Strangely, these two bills have bipartisan support.
Another bright spot in Save the Chimps’ long-term goal came in December of 2011, when the National Institute of Health (NIH), part of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and one of the world’s foremost medical research centers, took steps to ease the burden of research on chimps, which may lead to phasing out the practice altogether. Siding with the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) report “Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research: Assessing the Necessity,” NIH announced “it will not fund any new projects for research involving chimpanzees while the Agency considers and issues policy implementing the IOM’s recommendations.” As of fiscal year 2011, NIH funded 94,000 projects, 53 of which used chimps. The NIH’s stance: “The use of higher animals comes with higher moral costs.”
The IOM, though recognizing the specific need of chimpanzees in research in years past, sites that “recent advances in alternate research tools have rendered chimpanzees largely unnecessary as research subjects.” IOM’s assessment does not go as far as banning chimp research outright, nor does it endorse the use of chimps for research, rather “establishes a set of uniform criteria for determining when, if ever, current and future research use of chimpanzees is necessary to treat, prevent or control public health challenges.”
Until changes become permanent, Save the Chimps is, at the very least, a chance to make amends. It is a place of perseverance, acceptance and forgiveness. These chimps had experienced horrors, there is no innocence left, and though there were things garnered in the process of exploitation, for the few that have had the chance to observe these animals on the sanctuary grounds have walked away learning something much more valuable: Compassion in its purest and most base form. To some, chimps are a lesser animal, simply part of man’s dominion; to those who have walked among the islands realize we still have much to learn.
To help keep the doors open at Save the Chimps, visit their website and see how you can help.