Chimps on the rise at Cle Elum sanctuary

CLE ELUM -- Jamie the chimp takes great care not to walk on the wood-chip-covered floor of the Chimp Sanctuary Northwest's outdoor enclosure.

The undisputed leader of the Cle Elum Seven, a group of former lab chimps adopted by the sanctuary three years ago, Jamie prefers the feel of manmade objects underfoot.

She gingerly walks along the edge of a plastic tub before pulling herself up to sit on a metal platform. In a few months, the sanctuary will open a new 2-acre area that's closer to natural chimp habitat. Staffers aren't sure how well Jamie will take to the grass.

"Some of the chimps don't like the feel of grass," says Diana Goodrich, the sanctuary's outreach director. "Most of them are used to just concrete or bars under their feet."

And there it is, a reminder that no matter how much progress the chimps make in their post-guinea-pig lives, they will always carry the psychological scars of their decades in captivity.

The effects on chimps who have been long-term test subjects linger, which is one reason Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., are pushing legislation to end the practice.

"There is no question that chimpanzees experience pain, stress and social isolation in ways strikingly similar to the way humans do," Bartlett wrote in a Wednesday New York Times editorial.

If the legislation is approved, it would phase out the practice, eventually moving 500 federally owned chimps from laboratories to sanctuaries. And, despite the permanent trauma scientists say such chimps suffer, there is notable improvement in sanctuary environments. The Cle Elum Seven are testament to that.

Foxie, Annie, Jamie, Burrito, Jody, Missy and Negra arrived in 2008 from Buckshire Corp. of Perkasie, Pa., which for more than 20 years had leased them to labs for breeding and hepatitis B vaccine research. They basically have their run of the place, hanging out behind the gates of their outdoor room or climbing around the two-story indoor chimp playhouse. At about 1,800 square feet, the sanctuary is a significant upgrade from the 3-by-5-foot cages in which they spent most of their lives.

Since their arrival, the chimps have become accustomed to their new home, each developing a distinct personality and role within the group. Foxie, for instance, was aloof upon arrival, and now she's downright playful. She generally has at least one Troll doll in hand, and she's taken on the role of peacemaker when there are disputes between other chimps.

Missy and Annie have become best friends; that breathy sound they make as they play with each other's feet is "chimp laughter," Goodrich says.

Sarah Baeckler, the sanctuary's director, says the chimps have been an inspiration to her.

"If I had experienced what they experienced in their lives, I would be either banging my head against the wall or I'd be very angry and bitter," she said by phone from a conference at the Florida-based Center For Great Apes.

Certainly there are still moments of anger among the chimps. But mostly they seem relaxed, even playful, in their open-air enclosure. They approach Goodrich just to say hello, they devour the fruit and nuts they're given during a morning feeding and they look longingly at the two acres of grass that soon will be theirs.

"They know it's for them," Goodrich says, adding that when a new door was installed that will lead from their current enclosure to the grassy area, "They all just started hugging each other."

Even with the new open-air enclosure, though, Chimp Sanctuary Northwest cannot accommodate more chimps. The organization, with a budget this year of $450,000, relies entirely on donations and private grants. Founded in 2008 by former Director Keith LaChappelle, the sanctuary relies on fundraising events such as an upcoming auction in Seattle. It may expand in coming years, though probably not at the Cle Elum site, Baeckler says. But expansion depends on funding, a challenge for Chimp Sanctuary Northwest along with the other eight such sanctuaries in the country.

"There are probably 100 chimps that could go somewhere tomorrow if there was space," Baeckler says.

There will be hundreds more if the Cantwell-Bartlett legislation succeeds. The main topic of discussion at the Florida conference Baeckler has been attending all week is just how to accommodate that many chimps. Certainly, it will take additional donors.

"Chimps are, thankfully, a species that really appeals to the public," she says. "Once people get to know their stories, they really connect with them."

Toward that end, the Cle Elum sanctuary is working to create a program over the next couple of years that would allow the public supervised, educational visits to the facility.

"It would have to be safe and respectful to the chimps," Baeckler says.

The staff at the sanctuary -- there are five full-timers and about 40 regular volunteers -- have no desire to turn the place into a zoo. Their mission, put simply by Goodrich, is to "figure out what the chimps like and just kind of provide that for them."

The Cle Elum Seven, after all, have been through plenty already. Most of them are between 30 and 40 years old. Chimps can live into their 60s, but all of those housed at the facility had numerous liver biopsies during their time as hepatitis research subjects. It's likely their lives will be significantly shorter because of it, Goodrich says. And, as she says it, Missy and Annie continue to laugh and play a few feet away.