MORGANTON, Ga. - A Georgia sanctuary is an unlikely retirement home for former medical research chimpanzees.
Project Chimps is a 236-acre facility that is currently home to 59 chimps retired from a private medical research lab in Louisiana. They hope to home about 200 in the coming years.
Channel 2 Actions News was allowed behind the scenes for a very special moment: when 10 female chimps went outside for the first time.
“It's an intimate job working with chimps,” said chimp caregiver Anthony Denice. “It's also a little nerve-racking at first. They're noisy, they're loud, they're really, really smart.”
Project Chimps has gained some national attention from star supporters like Rachael Ray, Kat Von D and Judy Greer. The defunct gorilla sanctuary was purchased with help from the Humane Society of the United States.
“When you first meet a chimpanzee the first thing that will go through your head is man, this is remarkably human,” Denice said.
The medical research community faced years of criticism for lab tests involving chimps. In 2013 the National Institute of Heath announced it would phase out its chimpanzee testing program, then in 2015 U.S. Fish and Wildlife declared all chimps in the U.S. endangered.
While many chimps continue to live in labs, a handful of sanctuaries like Project Chimps are looking for donor support to expand and find homes for primates.
Project Chimps is launching a campaign to raise $10 million to expand their habitat to make room for the nearly 150 chimps remaining at the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana.
“All the science proved after all these years of testing and testing and testing, humans weren't getting any benefit, and we were doing all these cruel things to our closest genetic relative,” said Project Chimps executive director Ali Crumpacker.
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Channel 2 Action News cameras were rolling as the 10 newest Project Chimps residents went outside of their chimpanzee “villas” into the outdoor habitat for the first time.
They foraged outside for nuts and fruits left by caregivers. Many of the chimpanzee gave each other reassuring hugs once they were outdoors. Some examined their feet after walking on the grass and gravel.
“We've actually had one group of chimpanzees where they made the alarm call at the open sky. So to do that at the open sky says man this is really, really new,” Denice explained.
The goal of chimp staff is to give the animals freedom of choice—for companionship and event their food choices. Volunteers at Project Chimps said broccoli, onion, coconut and mango were some favorite food choices for the primates.
“To see them looking up at the sky, I think that's the first time they've been outside without bars overhead, and they were excited. It was just fun to see,” said Project Chimps volunteer Mark Ranstadler.
The release of those 10 chimpanzees was especially important to him because he drove the chimps from the Louisiana lab 15 hours to Project Chimps.
“I sleep good helping out here. It's been important to me,” Ranstadler said.
Chimps retired from medical research cannot return to the wild and will not breed in captivity. The mission of Project Chimps is to advocate that no chimp is captive by humans for exploitation.
“We take care of the beings that gave to us,” Crumpacker said. “We may not even know what they gave, but they gave it, and it's time for us to give it back.”
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