Chimpanzees get COVID-19 vaccinations at Project Chimps in N. Ga

A handful of the 77 chimpanzees living at the Project Chimps sanctuary in Morganton received vaccinations against COVID-19 last week.

None of the animals showed signs of infection with coronavirus and the immunizations were administered “as another layer of protection from what we already do to keep them healthy,” said executive director Ali Crumpacker.

Crumpacker said the staff had plans to vaccinate 10 chimps Wednesday but successfully vaccinated only nine. She said the sanctuary will eventually inoculate all 77 animals.

Since the beginning of the pandemic zoo keepers and others have become aware that the disease can be transmitted to animals. Recently Zoo Atlanta announced that more than a dozen of its 20 western lowland gorillas had tested positive for COVID-19, and were being treated.

The zoo plans on vaccinating the gorilla population once they all recover and has already vaccinated its Bornean and Sumatran orangutans, its Sumatran tigers, its African lions and its clouded leopard.

Vaccinating larger primates requires cooperation from the animals. They are trained to accept regular injections to protect against rabies and other diseases, and the veterinary staff regularly practice with the animals using “dummy” needles so they can grow accustomed to presenting an arm or a leg for such procedures.

At Project Chimps the humans remain behind a metal grid placed in a security wall during the injections, while the chimps can come and go in a three-acre yard.

“Not all the chimps are as cooperative as others,” said Crumpacker. “They learn from each other. We’re making sure that the ones who are hesitant about the activity see the ones that are cooperative, hoping they will not hesitate as much (when it’s their turn).”

Humans, she said, can also learn from this, by positive role modeling from their peers. “Obviously we can’t explain to the chimps why we’re asking them to take a shot. Humans can investigate that. But we can show we’re interested in giving them a positive experience, and we can make sure they can trust their medical adviser.”

The veterinary staff at the sanctuary make the injections a positive experience by giving a dried date to the chimp receiving the shot. “They really like dried dates,” said Crumpacker. “It’s not something they normally get in their daily diet; it’s like a kid getting a lollipop after visiting a doctor.”

The sanctuary plans to vaccinate 10 chimps a week and will require about 15 rounds of vaccinations to cover the entire population, with initial injections and booster shots.

While workers at Project Chimps were taking precautions to protect the health of the chimpanzees, two former staff members at Project Chimp, who have criticized the care given the animals, erected a billboard near the facility on Sept. 25 asking the question “Sanctuary or Warehouse?”

One of the former staffers also created a website questioning the lack of time the chimps spend outdoors, among other concerns.

Stephen Ross of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes based out of the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, conducted an independent study of the Project Chimps facility in the fall of 2020, to evaluate the care of the animals

Ross determined the facility scored high in two of three area measured, writing that the chimps had a “rich and dynamic social life” and that the areas available to house the chimps were “broadly exceeding those used to house chimpanzees elsewhere.”

Ross wrote that programs available to the chimps could use improvement, but overall gave a high grade to the care provided at Project Chimps.

It is suspected that the gorillas at Zoo Atlanta contracted the virus from one of their keepers, who was asymptomatic at the time. At Project Chimps the staff are already required to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, they wear masks while indoors and also outdoors in group settings. Volunteers must be vaccinated by Nov. 1.

In 2015, when chimpanzees were effectively excluded from animal experimentation by the National Institutes of Health, Project Chimps was founded as a permanent sanctuary for chimpanzees formerly used in scientific research.

The 236-acre North Georgia facility was originally created as a haven for gorillas, but was retrofitted to accommodate chimpanzees, and began receiving them the following year.

Crumpacker said there are an additional 120 chimpanzees kept at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette New Iberia Research Center that the sanctuary hopes to house eventually.

She said that Project Chimps is apparently the first sanctuary to provide vaccinations for chimpanzees. The vaccines were donated by Zoetis, a veterinary drug company that formulated the vaccines specifically for animal use.