New Digs: Federal Research Chimps Savor Retirement

Chimps gather food at Chimp Haven in Keithville, La., Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013.
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On Tuesday, Conan's crowd was in a play area, catching fruit thrown by staffers. A female named Sheila slapped her hands together and then held up an arm to attract attention.

A few minutes' walk away, another group of 15 chimps raced from the steel mesh tunnel between their sleeping area and a 5-acre forested habitat toward an array of fruits and vegetables strewn on the ground. Some grabbed a hoard of bananas, apples and oranges before starting to munch; others ate immediately.

After a bit, several turned to a tall, pointed structure with PVC pipes stuck in it — an imitation termite mound. In the wild, chimps poke sticks into termite mounds to pull out insects to eat. At Chimp Haven, the tubes may hold honey-coated bits of fruit or sugar-free candy, inducing the great apes to use tools as they would in the wild.

Fultz said some newcomers won't even step on the grass in the play yards, but Julius' group had no qualms.

"They sit and look around. They look up at the sky. To me, they seem to be thinking, 'There's no bars,'" Fultz said.

That isn't to say bars don't exist in the sanctuary.

Indoor bedrooms, furnished with straw and blankets for making nests, and old fire hose for climbing, have steel mesh interior walls to keep chimps in.

Chimps with HIV, hepatitis or other major medical or psychological problems have outdoor areas surrounded by the same wide, heavy steel mesh. The peaked ceilings are of pipes laid a few inches apart from each other so the chimps can swing across the ceiling arm over arm, as they might in trees.

"Those spaces are huge. They're huge," said Lori Gruen, a Wesleyan University philosophy professor who specializes in animal ethics. Chimp Haven is "a pretty remarkable facility. I think it will be quite interesting and exciting to see it expand."

But there's a major hurdle. When Chimp Haven was made the national sanctuary in 2002, Congress capped spending on the project at $30 million. That cap will be hit this year.

U.S. Rep. John Fleming, a Republican representing northwest Louisiana, said in a statement emailed by his press secretary that any additional federal spending "will be difficult" in the current budget climate of mounting federal debt and ongoing national security priorities.

Kathleen Conlee, vice president for animal research issues of the Humane Society of the United States, and other advocates say there's no need for additional spending if Congress would let NIH put money now spent on research contracts into the animals' retirement.

That would save money, because the 75 percent federal share of care at Chimp Haven is lower than the research contracts' cost, Conlee has said.

With help from the Humane Society and other nonprofit groups, the sanctuary has in recent months raised $2.6 million needed to add bedrooms, six play yards and an open-air enclosure to accommodate all 111 federal chimps coming from New Iberia and another $100,000 toward a total $5.1 million goal announced in November.

"We certainly expect and hope the cap will be extended," said Cathy Willis Spraetz, who became president of Chimp Haven three weeks ago.

If it isn't? "Then we have to rely on our wonderful donors," she said.

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Online:

www.chimphaven.org

Lori Gruen's sites about research chimpanzees:

http://last1000chimps.com/

http://first100chimps.wesleyan.edu/

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