New life for former research chimps

North Georgia sanctuary ultimately will take in more than 200 ‘retired’ primates
Hercules, shown in a habitat at Project Chimps, is a former research chimp who was named in a lawsuit to get him and another chimp recognized as persons and released from labs. CONTRIBUTED BY CRYSTAL ALBA / PROJECT CHIMPS

Hercules, shown in a habitat at Project Chimps, is a former research chimp who was named in a lawsuit to get him and another chimp recognized as persons and released from labs. CONTRIBUTED BY CRYSTAL ALBA / PROJECT CHIMPS

On a sunny Tuesday in May, 11-year-old Hercules made a brave move and ventured outside alone. He moved slowly at first, looking at the ground and shaking his head before walking across 2 acres of forest to observe the sights and sounds around him. Not far behind him was Leo, also 11, who ran forward before stopping, sitting down and staring up at the sky.

Hercules and Leo are former research chimpanzees, and it was the first time in their lives they had ever been outside.

The pair first made headlines in 2013 when they were named as plaintiffs in a lawsuit demanding they be recognized as persons and released from a laboratory in New York. It would take five years, a series of events that effectively ended biomedical research on chimpanzees, and plenty of tension between animal activists and animal researchers, but Hercules and Leo would eventually move from laboratories to their forever home at a new chimp sanctuary in the mountains of North Georgia.

Project Chimps is a 236-acre property in Morganton on the site of the former Dewar Wildlife facility, which housed gorillas until 2015. Under an agreement with University of Louisiana-Lafayette New Iberia Research Center (NIRC), Project Chimps, which is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, will soon be home to more than 200 chimps that have been retired from research.

The first chimps began arriving in fall 2016 with the population growing to 40 this spring. One chimp, Sopulu, 15, died in May from an acute heart attack. With up to 20 more chimps expected before the end of the year, renovations to the facility have had to move quickly. The first phase of development — a $3 million update of the former gorilla habitat — will be finished in February. The walled habitat includes five villas, a 6-acre open-air enclosure and a revamped kitchen and veterinary center. Phase two is a $10 million undertaking that will be built from the ground up to accommodate more than 170 chimps still waiting at NIRC.

In 2017, annual operating costs were $1.5 million, with more than $700,000 going toward chimp care and programs.

Once all the chimps have arrived, the goal is to give them, the last generation of research chimps, the opportunity to live the remainder of their lives as they wish. “What is different about their lives here than their lives in a research setting is they have more choices about where they go, what they do and who they associate with,” said Project Chimps spokeswoman Leslie Wade.

>> Related: Former research chimps at North Georgia sanctuary go outdoors for the first time

Though the average age of chimps in captivity is 32 years, they can live up to 50 years or more. If all goes well, in the next half-century, Project Chimps will no longer exist. “Our goal is to put ourselves out of business,” Wade said.

A changing perspective

Hercules and Leo were born at NIRC in 2006. They were about 3 years old when NIRC loaned them to Stony Brook University School of Medicine in New York for a six-year research study funded by the National Science Foundation. Susan Larson, professor and chair of the Department of Anatomical Sciences, was head of the project.

The research was designed to compare the movement of chimps to the movement of humans to better understand human evolution, she said. It involved taking video images that tracked Hercules and Leo walking, having them walk over force plates to measure forces and inserting fine wire electrodes into their muscles to see which muscles were being used as they walked.

Protocol called for Hercules and Leo to be under anesthesia when the electrodes were inserted, but Larson said it wasn’t a painful process. “You are unaware of them when they are there. I can say this with confidence because I have had the same procedure done to me,” she said. During their time at the lab, Hercules and Leo lived in rooms with climbing ropes and hammocks. A caregiver engaged them in creative and physical play, said Larson, noting that the image people have of labs is outmoded. “They got a lot of attention. They are very social animals. I think they pretty much enjoyed being here,” Larson said.

But not everyone agreed. In late 2013, the Nonhuman Rights Project filed a lawsuit on behalf of Hercules and Leo to recognize them as legal persons. The court dismissed the case, but pressure was mounting elsewhere.

For decades, the U.S. government supported the capture and breeding of chimps for biomedical research. The practice peaked during the AIDS epidemic when more than 1,000 chimps were living in research labs across the country. In 2000, the government established a federal sanctuary to retire chimps no longer used in research. Chimp Haven, a sanctuary in Keithville, La., was awarded the federal contract for all chimps owned by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Two years after the Institute of Medicine issued a report in 2011 concluding that chimps were no longer useful animal models for current biomedical research, the NIH announced it would end invasive research and retire to Chimp Haven 300 of the 350 government-owned chimps. In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service changed the status of captive chimps to endangered. “That is really what has terminated the kind of research I would do on chimps, making it virtually impossible,” said Larson.

She was happy Hercules and Leo would have the chance to live in a sanctuary, but they were just two out of hundreds of chimps in need of a place to call home.

Getting underway

In 2014, a year before the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision, Sarah Baeckler Davis, founder and then-CEO of Project Chimps, and Bruce Wagman, animal lawyer and Project Chimps founding board member, had been in negotiations with NIRC to retire its privately owned chimp population. The center had already planned the transfer of 110 federally owned chimps from NIRC to Chimp Haven, but that left 220 chimps owned by NIRC. When an agreement was reached in 2015, plans for Project Chimps moved forward. They just needed a location.

Despite its ambitions, the Dewar Wildlife Facility had never housed more than a few gorillas. When Baeckler Davis approached owner Steuart Dewar about Project Chimps, he agreed to sell the land and donate the facility.

Project Chimps’ first phase includes five chimpanzee residences surrounding a forested, 6-acre habitat in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The 236-acre property in Morganton provides lifetime care to former research chimpanzees. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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The Humane Society of the United States provided almost $2 million in funds to purchase the property and surrounding parcels. Other contributions came from a range of supporters, including board members; the American, New England and National Anti-Vivisection Societies, which oppose surgery on animals for experimentation; and the Animal Legal Defense Fund as well as public donations and grant funding.

It also helped to have celebrity supporters, including founding board members Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day and his wife Adrienne, along with contributors such as Rachael Ray, Bill Maher and Kat Von D, who donates a portion of proceeds from sales of her "Project Chimps" lip color to the sanctuary.

Project Chimps is run by 25 staff members, including five managers. There are 85 active volunteers, which they hope to grow to 200 within the year. Ali Crumpacker joined as executive director in 2017. She relocated from California, where she served as director of the Fund for Animals Wildlife Center. 

Of the 236 acres, 40 acres are dedicated to chimp care or housing. The 1,500-square-foot chimp villas feature multiple levels and access to heated bedrooms and open-air spaces. Project Chimps is also working with local farmers to convert some of the acreage into a farm with high-yield crops that will lower the cost of feeding the chimps over time.

In the kitchen, made possible by Rachael Ray, volunteers create a calendar outlining the weekly menu for the chimps, which includes a lot of fruits, vegetables and Chimp Chow made by Purina. Caregivers scatter nuts and seeds outside to encourage chimps to forage and tuck the chimps’ favorite fruits in hiding places for them to discover at mealtimes.

Volunteers are also responsible for designing the non-food enrichment schedule for chimps, which may include puzzles and games, music breaks, climbing on one of seven structures, and videos such as “Koko: A Talking Gorilla” or “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

NIRC decides which chimp groups are ready to make the transition to Project Chimps and consults with Project Chimps on how to balance the gender mix. The chimps are transferred in their existing gender-separated peer groups of up to 10 chimps. Project Chimps handles the local approvals required for the transfer, but otherwise they do not have ownership until the chimps are on the trailer for the 16-hour trip to Georgia.

A male chimp, Marlon, gestures at Project Chimps in Morganton. The population at Project Chimps, which provides lifetime care to former research chimpanzees, had grown to 40 this spring, and many more are coming. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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For the first two sets of chimps who arrived in 2016, part of the daily schedule also includes socialization. The process, overseen by Mike Seres, manager of chimpanzee socialization, is designed to encourage them to establish groupings similar to how they would have grouped themselves in the wild.

It involves a series of one-on-one introductions between a male and female chimp in the center of the villas. Sometimes they connect. Sometimes they don’t. During a recent introduction, a male chimp offered toys, sticks and hay to the female through a small opening in the mesh screen dividing them. When she did not respond, he just stared longingly at her. “It is up to them how long it takes for them to get used to each other,” said Seres, adding that the males have had vasectomies and the females are on birth control. “We are on chimp time.”

Forming bonds

By the time Hercules and Leo made the journey to Project Chimps in March, there were 31 chimps already in residence. After they were unloaded from their individual transport cages and settled into Villa Two, the chimps in their group of nine embraced and kissed to reassure one another.

Hercules and Leo immediately began interacting with the caregivers. “They were panting to certain people, and some caretakers panted back to them. Our way of working with chimps is to develop a good relationship, which means we are talking chimp language many times,” said Seres, referring to the chimp greeting of bobbing the head, panting and offering a wrist.

After he moved to the Project Chimps sanctuary, Leo was able to go outside for the first time. Leo was named in a lawsuit to get him and another chimp recognized as persons and released from labs. CONTRIBUTED BY CRYSTAL ALBA / PROJECT CHIMPS

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Hercules, Leo and their peer group spent 30 days in quarantine to give them time to adjust to the stress of traveling, new sounds, new routines and new foods. Leo was excited to try kiwi fruit. He also proved to be particularly good at using certain tools. Hercules, from the moment he first ventured outdoors in May, has loved going outside.

The two chimps still have a strong bond — Leo is the only chimp who can get away with stealing food from Hercules — but they have also each formed their own relationships. Leo has developed friendships with Binah and Jacob, while Hercules has become a protector for a young chimp named Kivuli. Once during a thunderstorm, caregivers found Kivuli, 7, tucked under Hercules’ arm, leaning against his chest for comfort.

For most days of the year, Project Chimps operates outside the public view, but Crumpacker is constantly fielding calls from people who want to visit. So last spring, they began offering Discovery Days twice a year in May and September — a day when the public is invited in for education, tours and more.

In the future, there may be more opportunities for education, not just with members of the public but with other sanctuaries, zoos and perhaps even research labs — organizations that have not historically shared information.

"In general, people who work with and study chimps are a pretty collaborative bunch, so if we can move away from this siloed approach, it will help," said Stephen Ross, a board member of Chimp Haven and director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, which recently partnered with Chimp Haven to share expertise and strategies. "I support a more open and transparent approach on the part of all communities."

Today, there are about 1,500 chimps in the U.S., and for the first time in decades, more of them live in sanctuaries than laboratories.

By 2024, Project Chimps hopes to have all the remaining chimpanzees from NIRC transferred to the sanctuary. “Our goal is to empty the research labs. Once they are empty, my mission is to take care of who is here,” Crumpacker said. “This is the last population of research great apes ever.”


Learn more about Project Chimps and the chimpanzee habitat during Discovery Days held twice per year. Dates for 2018 are sold out, but you can register now for next year. Discovery Days include a Discovery Zone with games, contests and more. Tours include a 60- to 90-minute guided hike around the sanctuary. While chimp sightings are not guaranteed, they are likely. Prices range from $12 for kids ages 5-12 (kids younger than 5 are free) to $1,000 for a VIP package, which includes a parking pass, a private tour for four guests and an invitation to a VIP event. Dates for 2019 include May 18-19 and Sept. 28-29. For information, visit