When Save the Chimps took over the former Coulston Foundation biomedical research laboratory in September 2002, the chimpanzees were found to be living in barren and stark conditions.
The most dismal place was Building 300, which quickly became known as “the Dungeon.” More than 50 chimps lived here, most of them alone, in cages the size of a small bathroom, about 10 feet long, 5 feet wide, and 6 feet long. The chimps could not climb or swing, and even worse, they could not touch each other. The walls between each cage were several inches of solid concrete. The chimps could see only other chimps who lived across the hall, but they never laid eyes on their next door neighbors. Not only was this situation miserable for the chimps, the design also prevented any possibility of introducing chimps to each other to form social groups. Something had to be done.
The first major renovation was the installation of 4′ high wire mesh extensions to the outdoor cages, providing the chimps an opportunity to climb, to see beyond the walls that had contained them for so long, and most importantly, to meet and touch their neighbors for the first time.
Despite the modest amount of space (“A stinking four feet,” says Dr. Noon), the Penthouses – as they came to be known – made an enormous difference to the chimps, and they have reveled in their new space ever since.
The penthouses allowed the chimps to see and touch each other, and we learned quickly which chimps were friends, and which chimps seemed to drive each other nuts. But the solid walls of the cages still prevented us from giving the chimps what they needed most: each other.
Since 2002, we’ve made a lot more changes. The chimps’ diet of monkey chow, like dry dog food, has been replaced with three meals a day of fresh fruits and vegetables, oatmeal or grits in the morning and with dinner a really nice pasta salad that the kitchen regularly prepares.
The cages that were previously barren are now full of toys and boxes and blankets and whatever else we can think of and they look like really messy teenagers’ rooms.Thinking of ways to keep the chimps busy during the day is how the staff spends their afternoons.
Our plan with all the chimpanzees, not just those living in “the Dungeon,” is to form large family groups of at least 20 individuals. Adult males, adult females, teenagers, adolescents and at least two babies per group.
When we took over the lab there were a group of nine babies living together – all taken from their mothers at birth. They are around 4 years old now. Two of the babies, Elway and Pamela, are now living with a group of seventeen chimps.
The first step was to introduce Elway and Pamela to Melissa who just happens to be Elway’s mother although neither of them know that. Next we added Peggy who has turned out to actually be their adopted Mom although Melissa loves them too.
With the protection of Peggy and/or Melissa, the babies were introduced to the rest of the members who make up this group. The most poignant of these introductions was Alice meeting Peggy and the babies. Alice lived with a group of five other females and was the most timid of the group. She is timid in all ways and is even afraid to enter the outside cage when the door is open without holding onto the wall for safety.
Alice met lots of other people before we introduced her to Peggy. Each time we would open the door and Alice would scream at the mere thought of a stranger being in the same cage with her.
She also screamed if this stranger looked at her or took a step in her direction.
What was so amazing is that each of these chimps that apparently scared Alice backed off. They did not insist on approaching her, they didn’t look at her and they took no steps in her direction.
Instead they minded their own business and waited for Alice to approach them. And when Alice finally did it usually ended in a hug between two chimps. We marveled time after time about Alice’s courage and the other chimp’s reserve.
Time for Alice to meet Peggy and the babies. First, we introduced Peggy. Alice screamed and screamed and Peggy more or less said “Whatever. You come to me when you are ready” which Alice finally did. Then we separated Peggy and this time opened the door between Alice and Peggy who now had the two kids with her.
Of course, more screaming from Alice. But unlike the other chimps with manners she had met before, Elway and Pamela made a beeline for Alice and threw themselves on top of her. Elway took her feet and started tickling them. Pamela landed on Alice’s ticklish neck and started play biting it. Peggy made no attempt to reel in these unruly babies.
Clearly, Alice was overwhelmed. But, really, what could she do? Make a run for the outdoor cage which also scares her with two babies attached to her? After about 3 seconds of looking absolutely baffled Alice did the only thing she could do – she started to laugh. We she did get up to move it was to play a game of chase with Elway and Pamela. She chased them inside and outside and never once felt the need to hold on to the walls of the cage.
The staff looked on kind of speechless. We didn’t know Alice was ticklish, we didn’t know Alice ever laughed, and maybe she hadn’t before, we didn’t know she could travel without holding onto the walls but we all knew we were seeing something special.
And that is the most moving part of the introductions. Alice plays and laughs. Whether or not she has ever before this ability was sitting in Alice all along. Elway and Pamela, who lived in the baby group, have a mother now that they love and run to for protection. And Peggy, the mother who has given birth to plenty of babies all taken away from her, loves these two unruly kids. Without giving the chimps these chances to change and grow we would have no idea how much amazing ability they already have to do just that. Abilities that could have sat dormant forever.
There was really nothing special about this introduction – it happens over and over again. Gracie meets Rebel, Whoopi meets Sinbad who doesn’t like any of us to even look at Whoopi now since he is so protective and Spock and Jeannie live together. There is the playing and hugging and grooming with the occasional argument thrown in. What continues to amaze us all is that as the opportunities grow for these chimps so do they. These people are so ready to get on with their new lives and they have always had everything locked inside them to do so but with nowhere to go with it.
Save the Chimps, Inc. is a 501 (c)(3) charitable organization and all contributions are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law.