Rescued from the brink

It's a stunning day in Fort Pierce, just about midway between Orlando and Miami on the Atlantic coast. Late February sunshine has nudged out the winter cold and there's green grass and blue sky as far as you can see. Only the words "Careful — she's going to spit!" interrupt the postcard moment.

Just as Triana Romero says those words, Tammy does as predicted, though neither of us gets hit. Romero, director of communications for Save the Chimps, clearly knows Tammy, a 20-something chimpanzee, well enough to spot her spit-face when she sees it. Tammy is being silly, Romero says, and Tammy goes on being silly by blowing a stream of Bronx cheers that would impress even South Park's Terrance and Phillip.

Save the Chimps is a nonprofit organization founded by primatologist Carole Noon in 1997. Dr. Noon died of pancreatic cancer last year but her legacy is an inspirational feat of engineering and empathy. Situated on 150 acres of former orange groves, her chimpanzee sanctuary is divided into a dozen islands separated by lakes. Today a total of 187 chimpanzees call this sprawling property their home, with its platforms, swings, hammocks and, most importantly, other chimps.

All of the chimpanzees living here were rescued from government laboratory research facilities; raised in captivity, they cannot be returned to the wild — just like Tillikum, the killer whale responsible for the February death of his trainer at SeaWorld Orlando. The sad consensus is that these animals can never be domesticated, nor can they go home. So where do they go? For a few lucky chimps, it's their own private island in Fort Pierce.

Considering Tammy's background her silliness is impressive. When the U.S. Air Force decided to stop doing chimp research in 1997, the apes and their progeny — deemed "surplus equipment" — were sent either to the Primarily Primates sanctuary in Texas or to the Coulston Foundation in New Mexico, a biomedical lab with an abysmal record of animal care. The conditions at Coulston were "horrendous," according to a May 2008 story posted on the Advocacy for Animals blog at Britannica Online.

As reported, "The animals were confined in concrete and steel cages for years; the laboratory conducted unapproved research methods; and basic animal welfare protocols were disregarded. Many independent government bodies investigated and found that the Coulston Foundation had repeatedly violated federal regulations, including the Animal Welfare Act, but enforcement of the laws was poor, and fines, though levied, were not collected."

Dr. Noon eventually sued the Air Force on the behalf of the Coulston chimps, counting Dr. Jane Goodall (who sits on Save the Chimp's advisory council) among her supporters. They settled out of court and the first group of 21 chimps were en route to Florida by 2001. Tammy was one of them.

"This is where it all began," says Romero of a small, white house on the edge of the sanctuary where Dr. Noon lived. With a grant from the Arcus Foundation, which also funded the Fort Pierce property, Save the Chimps bought the Coulston property and the 266 chimps that came with it in 2002, making Save the Chimps the largest chimp sanctuary in the world. STC transformed the grim enclosures in New Mexico into a more spacious, colorful and connected environment. They hope to transfer the 68 remaining chimps from there to the Florida location by 2011.

We walked out onto the grounds and could see chimps in the distance, walking or grouped together on a platform. The sight is enough to take you out of your day-to-day head space right there; all these great apes walking around out in this big open space in front of you. You get a sense of size, space and presence that photos can't convey.

The 12 islands are separated by moats (chimps can't swim), so there's no need for bars, and there's just enough fencing to go from the water to their hurricane-proof shelters. Each island has a shelter with interconnected cages; the chimps can go outside any time except for brief maintenance intervals. How do they know they're hurricane-proof?

"If they're chimp-proof, they're hurricane-proof," says Romero, referring to the chimps' massive strength, seven times that of a human being. The staff has no direct contact with the animals, except for vet care.

The United States is the only country in the world that federally funds medical research on chimps, a practice that might end with the passage of the pending Great Ape Protection Act. The proposed legislation would demand the release about 500 government-owned chimpanzees to sanctuaries and ban the breeding of chimps for research. According to the Humane Society of the United States, there are an estimated 1,000 chimpanzees still living in U.S. laboratories. The HSUS website also states that "At any given time, about 80 percent to 90 percent of chimpanzees in laboratories are not used in research, but simply warehoused at taxpayer expense."

Freeing captive animals, though, isn't as easy as sliding a door open. Jen Feuerstein, director of Save the Chimps, which is a sanctuary and not an advocacy group, is an expert at transitioning apes raised in unnatural environments to the next best thing, a process that can take up to a year for each chimp. She works closely with the staff and is the one who ultimately decides which chimps will mesh well together in the family groups, thus easing the socialization process.

One of Feuerstein's favorite stories is about Alice, who had lived with five other female chimpanzees in New Mexico and would scream for no reason. "She would pull at her feet and hands … she never smiled. She didn't want to go outside," she says. According to Alice's profile she was isolated as a toddler and spent 12 years as a research subject. She was integrated into the larger group by introducing her to two of the sanctuary's youngest inhabitants. Alice was intimidated by the playful babies at first, but one day the staff heard a new sound that threw everyone for a loop: Alice was laughing. A chimpanzee laugh is an almost-silent "heeheehee," kind of like panting; we heard it a couple of times during the visit.

Alice is no longer intimidated by other chimps. In fact, she grew "stroppy" in Dr. Noon's words, and her family group is even named for her. "She became who she was meant to be," Feuerstein says.

Retirement to Florida isn't a cheap prospect for anyone and Save the Chimps relies exclusively on private funding — they receive no government dollars. The sanctuary's food bill alone — including the cost of 600 bananas a day — is $450,000 annually. There's also vet care, including contraception and a 77-member staff and transportation. It costs $25,000 per trip to migrate a group of approximately 10 chimps to Florida.

The result, though, is worth the cost. Born or raised in captivity, these chimps can never be released into the wild because they lack the necessary survival skills. Some of them haven't felt grass beneath their feet in 40 years. Some stay on their concrete patios for two weeks before they are emotionally capable of venturing out into open spaces.

By the end of the visit, I'd seen the paintings these bright, engaged chimps create for enrichment and saw a relaxed chimp lounging in the sun, arms and legs spread. And then there was Sophie, who ran up to me carrying an orangutan doll that she takes everywhere, like Linus with his blanket.

Romero asks Sophie if she's enjoying the sun and she nods. And I nod. Then Sophie shakes her head no. I copy. She has me engaged in "monkey see, monkey do," and I'm the monkey. I'm so smitten that it's hard to leave. But their peaceful retirement is why it's a sanctuary and not open to the public. Whether it's tigers, whales or chimpanzees, Romero puts the question of captivity in an elegant nutshell, saying simply "They're not for us."

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