Upon arriving at the Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest (CSNW), I am greeted by Jamie. The alpha female of the group of chimps known as “The Cle Elum Seven,” she seems initially curious about the stranger with a camera. After several minutes under her close observation — thinking I have been welcomed — I let my guard down. With the swiftness of a professional baseball player, Jamie flings poo through the metal cage, aiming straight for me. Thankfully, my reflexes have kicked in and the flying poo only grazes my shoulder. Now, it seems, I have received her official welcome.
Although it may seem like negative behavior to be reprimanded, Jamie’s display of dominance is typical of chimpanzees protecting their home. And, that she behaves like a typical chimpanzee, and considers the grounds of the Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest to be her home, are positive signs of her recovery.
Jamie and the other six chimps at the sanctuary relocated to the sanctuary from a private biomedical facility in Pennsylvania in 2008. Some chimps were taken from the wild, others born in captivity, but all seven were used as biomedical test subjects, primarily to test hepatitis vaccines. Several of the female chimps were used as breeders, birthing multiple baby chimps who were taken away shortly after birth. Jody in particular — the chimpanzee known as “The Manager” due to her vigilant efforts to ensure that the group stays together — had nine live births and two miscarriages in a span of ten years.
Founded in 2003 by Keith LaChapelle, CSNW was created to provide lifetime care for chimps previously utilized for biomedical or entertainment purposes. Co-directors J.B. Mulcahy and Diana Goodrich, who met while studying primatology at Central Washington University as graduate students, have been with the Cle Elum Seven since the beginning of their journey from the Pennsylvania lab to their new home in Washington. Along with a team of volunteers, they have worked for the past eight years to facilitate an environment that allows each chimp to find an individual path to recovery.
“We don’t really use the word rehabilitation here because it implies that the staff and volunteers are actively doing something to rehabilitate the chimps,” says Mulcahy. “What we do is provide an environment which allows the chimps the opportunity to express their natural behavior, while also recognizing them as individuals with unique histories."
Much of rehabilitation focuses on helping the individual chimps feel safe and comfortable.
What we do is provide an environment which allows the chimps the opportunity to express their natural behavior, while also recognizing them as individuals with unique histories.
“They can climb and forage for plants outdoors … but after 35 years in a laboratory, if a chimp is nervous outside, they should also have a big nest of blankets indoors to sleep in — if that’s what they choose to do.”
Wild chimpanzees and captive chimpanzees have not historically been afforded the same protections under federal law. Wild chimpanzees have been classified as endangered since 1990, a status which grants them protections under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Captive chimpanzees were exempt from these protections up until recently. In 2010, a petition was filed by the Jane Goodall Institute, the Humane Society of the United States, and others seeking to close the loophole and extend protections to chimps in captivity.
In June 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially extended the endangered designation to all chimpanzees, broadening the protections of the Endangered Species Act to include those in captivity. Biomedical laboratories seeking to utilize chimpanzees in research are now only afforded a permit to do so if they can prove that their research will support the conservation of chimpanzees and benefit the species. No labs have applied for the permit since the new laws were enacted.
The new protections afforded to captive chimpanzees signal a decline and potential end of invasive biomedical research on chimpanzees in the United States. In 2015, over 700 chimps were estimated to be utilized in research laboratories. In May 2016, Louisiana’s New Iberia Research Center — the world’s largest chimpanzee research facility — announced that it would be releasing all of its chimps to a sanctuary in Georgia.
With the release of more laboratory chimpanzees on the horizon, CSNW hopes to expand their facilities and increase their capacity to care for more chimps.
The chimps are recognized as honorary citizens of the city of Cle Elum. Goodrich notes, “They are known throughout the worlds as 'The Cle Elum Seven.' So, we’re not sure what we’re going to do when new chimps come … we’ll have to expand that.”
Aileen Imperial is a multimedia and documentary producer with a commitment to thoughtful observation and engagement. Her work has aired nationally on the PBS American Masters series, the PBS NewsHour, and she received an Emmy® award in 2016 in the Arts feature category.More stories by Aileen Imperial