August 9, 2018 Morganton - A female chimp Almasi eats supplement snacks at Project Chimps in Morganton on Thursday, August 9, 2018. Project Chimps provides lifetime care to former research chimpanzees in a sanctuary on 236-acres of forested land in the Blue Ridge Mountains. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Latest AJC podcast takes you behind the scenes at Project Chimps sanctuary

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Hercules and Leo are former research chimpanzees.

Earlier this year, they went outside for the first time in their lives.

The duo 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.  

This week’s podcast is all about Project Chimps, 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. 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.

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