A chimpanzee's golden years
Editor's note: Michelle took viewers inside Chimp Haven on tonight's broadcast. Click here to watch the video.
The primatologists at Chimp Haven in Keithville, La., the first federally-funded refuge for chimpanzees used in government and medical research, say every single one of us has benefited from the work done with these majestic, intelligent animals. Virtually any vaccination we get has been first tried out on a chimpanzee, our closest genetic cousins.
Dr. Linda Brent, who runs the refuge, says you need only look in one of these animal's eyes for a moment, and you know that there is a sentient, sensitive creature inside. We tended to agree after two days spent watching them -- some of whom have spent 40 years in a lab -- climb and swing and hoot through the Louisiana forest. Some were part of the space program. Some remember one another, even when they are reunited after decades in different facilities. They are curious and smart. When they reach a hand out toward a human it is striking how much it looks and moves like a human hand.
Photo caption: Two residents of Chimp Haven inspect an orange. Photo by NBC News.
Some of these research chimps have never been off of concrete, or outside. Until now. Chimp Haven is their retirement home, complete with games, "apesicles" made of juice, and movies (Wallace and Gromit and Mighty Joe Young are crowd-pleasers) on rainy days.
The 200 wild acres are incredible to see, especially for someone who has only ever seen chimps in a zoo, where they can often be viewed engaging some not-so-magnificent pastimes. Turns out, some of those unappetizing habits are the result of living in confinement, without intellectual or psychological stimulation. At the haven, they live as if wild, with minimal human contact. Somehow, the few who were born in Africa begin to "remember" how to be a chimp again -- recreating those wild activities like building nests, then teaching those skills to the chimps who were born in labs.
Just yesterday, the National Institutes of Health announced that it will permanently stop breeding chimps for research-- something the space program did years ago, and which some European countries have banned altogether. That's big news to the people here at Chimp Haven. It's a tough balance -- on one hand the amazing medical advancements for humanity made possible in part by chimpanzees, and on the other the obvious intelligence of creatures who spent decades without ever feeling grass or mud on their feet.
Chimp Haven staffer Rick DelaHaya says when the chimps arrive from a medical research lab, they are so unused to dirt on their feet that they are concerned by it -- they try to shake the mud off. Others are afraid to get their feet wet. And then there are those who are terrified to leave the concrete of an enclosure at all. To see them slowly take to the trees is like a window opening in their caged personalities after so many years.
But how do they know the chimps are happy, we ask?
"The way they play," Dr. Brent says, laughing, "even our elderly chimps -- they play."
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