[monkeywire] Chimp Veterans of Science Laboratories Will Soon Get Own Retirement Haven

Amber Hewins ahewins at mac.com
Tue Dec 2 08:57:37 EST 2003


November 28, 2003

Chimp Veterans of Science Laboratories Will Soon Get Own Retirement 

HREVEPORT, La. — Somewhere beyond the Crawfish Palace, beyond the 
roadside shops selling horse blankets and twisted alligator claws, 
beyond the towering casino with the $1 million wall, the future 
residents will build their homes, or more specifically, their nests.

Robert Davis cannot wait to meet them. Or at least wave a friendly 

The new neighbors might be pretty mellow after years of dedicated 
service. And a little long in the tooth.

But Mr. Davis, a janitor at a diner, is rolling out the welcome mat as 
if they were long lost kin — and in a way they are.

"I can't wait to see me a chimp," he said.

As Mr. Davis cleared tables of burgers and fries during a recent lunch 
hour, bulldozers not far away cleared trees for what will soon be the 
nation's largest sanctuary for chimpanzees, essentially a Delray Beach 
for veterans of the science laboratories.

In the woods outside Shreveport, construction began last week on Chimp 
Haven, a $29 million federally financed project deemed a humane 
solution to the growing surplus of chimps.

It is an unlikely partnership between animal lovers and a community 
best known as a gambling hot spot and a sportsman's paradise. Here in 
northwest Louisiana, animals usually get stalked, shot, skinned and 
stuffed. At least, that was the stereotype.

But as the chimp project edges closer to reality, more and more people 
are getting excited and even a little giddy.

"When we first heard about this, we all started laughing," said Billy 
Hanna, administrator for Caddo Parish, which includes the city of 
Shreveport. "But as we learned more, we realized that we as a society 
really owe these chimps."

Yes, there were a few initial concerns that chimps smell (they do) and 
that they might escape (unlikely). Some people even made cracks that if 
chimps got a federally financed retirement home, maybe they should also 
get 401(k)'s.

Chimpanzees are man's closest relative, sharing 98 percent of the same 
DNA. They were aggressively bred in the 1980's because scientists 
thought they might hold the key to curing AIDS. They did not, and soon 
there was a surplus of animals so intelligent they can use sign 
language. Today, many are kept like rats in small cages, a long way 
from the chimp heyday of the 1960's when a fuzzy ape named Ham rocketed 
into space.

For more than a decade, Linda Brent, a Jane Goodall protégée, and a 
cadre of animal rights advocates searched for a place where chimps 
could wile away their golden years.

In 1998, a Shreveport developer heard about the project and helped 
persuade Caddo Parish officials to donate 200 acres of thick forest to 
Chimp Haven. It may not be equatorial Africa, but it is pretty lush. 
The first of 300 graying chimps are expected to hit the woods next 

Dr. Brent can already hear the happy screeches.

"Right where we're standing, these chimps will be building nests and 
hunting for food and stripping leaves off branches to make tools," Dr. 
Brent, Chimp Haven's president, said as she stood in blue jeans and 
swamp boots watching bulldozers drag away trees. "They're going to 
learn how to be chimps again."

Local tourist traders cannot wait. The Shreveport area already draws 
two million visitors a year thanks to five casinos, including one with 
a million dollars in crisp 100's pressed behind glass. Chimp Haven may 
not have that Vegas shimmer, but it will be open to the public for 
educational tours, and "we'll have people from all across the country 
and even the world coming to see it," said Brandy Evans, spokeswoman 
for the local tourist bureau.

There is some sense of urgency to the project.

Of the 1,600 chimps in federal research laboratories, only a few old 
ones were born in the wild. Many live to be in their 50's but if they 
die before Chimp Haven is finished, "who will teach the others how to 
climb a tree? Who will show them how to build a nest?" Dr. Brent asked.

Rita, an African-born 48-year-old chimp currently prowling a chain-link 
cage at a research laboratory in San Antonio, will be one of Chimp 
Haven's first residents.

"Call me crazy, but when I look into her face, I see a person staring 
back at me," Dr. Brent said on a recent day as she dropped apricots 
into Rita's leathery palm. "And it's not just curiosity I see, but 

Dr. Brent said wild-born chimps like Rita are much better at sticking 
twigs into a barrel and extracting honey, a task that simulates termite 
hunting, than laboratory-born chimps. The design of Chimp Haven 
includes indoor enclosures where animals will be cared for and expanses 
of piney woods where chimps will be able to hunt small game and live 
off the land.

The grounds will be surrounded by a 20-foot-high concrete wall and a 
wide moat — chimps cannot swim. Both are security measures to protect 
curious chimps from getting out and perhaps prevent curious hunters 
from getting in.

"Let's just hope a couple local boys don't get liquored up and grab 
their guns," said Danny Polk, one of the construction workers at Chimp 

"This is Louisiana," Mr. Polk said. "We eat crawfish. There ain't many 
things we don't go after."

In the small downtown office of Chimp Haven, paintings by chimps hang 
on the wall (think of random splotches of color and the odd swatch of 
fur) and all around are stuffed animals and bowls of bananas.

Volunteers lick envelopes and plan events, like a recent fund-raising 
concert called Chimpstock.

"It's amazing," said Linda Koebner, executive director of Chimp Haven. 
"Many of our volunteers haven't even seen a chimp."

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