Rare Access Inside the World’s Biggest Chimpanzee Sanctuary

The first installment of TakePart’s new series following the lives of rescued chimps.

chimpanzee sanctuary habitat
Left: Aerial view of Save the Chimps sanctuary. Right: Two retired chimps playing on their island. (Photos: Mika Roberts courtesy of Save the Chimps)
Jennifer Feuerstein has worked for Save the Chimps since 2003, and is currently the Sanctuary Director.

On a peaceful morning, the distinctive hoots of a large male chimpanzee, Garfield, pierce the air. Jack echoes Garfield’s cries, and throws in some pounding foot stomps. Nadia and Vanna peek up from their cozy nest, and Kiley climbs up to her favorite lookout to watch the sunrise. Although the sounds are reminiscent of an African forest, it’s actually the start of another day at Save the Chimps, the world’s largest chimpanzee sanctuary, located in Fort Pierce, Florida.

The United States has the unfortunate distinction of being the last country to use chimpanzees in biomedical research. The practice came into full swing during the space race of the 1950s and early ’60s. Chimpanzees were captured in Africa, a brutal practice that involves slaughtering mothers and kidnapping their infants. After space travel became routine, the chimpanzees were used to test toxins, study disease, and practice surgeries.

In 1975, the importation of chimpanzees was banned and laboratories began breeding. Soon, an estimated 1,500 to 1,800 chimpanzees were living in research labs. As the number of lab chimps increased, so did the number of people questioning the practice of experimenting on our closest cousins.

It was against this backdrop that the late Dr. Carole Noon established Save the Chimps in 1997. The Air Force had announced that they were putting their “space chimps” up for bid—as though they were equipment. Dr. Noon was determined to provide them with the recognition and retirement they deserved. She found a friend and partner in Jon Stryker of the Arcus Foundation, whose generous support helped turn Dr. Noon’s vision into reality.

After a legal battle, 21 Air Force chimpanzees arrived at Save the Chimps in 2001. Garfield was among these chimps, at the time a ten-year-old upstart, who had plucked his own arms bald, probably out of sheer boredom. After spending years, if not decades, in tiny cages, Garfield and his new family rejoiced when they were released onto their three-acre island home.

Less than a year later, the largest primate research lab in the U.S., The Coulston Foundation (TCF), gave Dr. Noon a call. Animal welfare violations and failure to follow “good laboratory practices” had resulted in TCF’s loss of federal funding. On the verge of bankruptcy, they were looking for a home for 266 chimpanzees. On September 16, 2002, Save the Chimps took over the lab and overnight became the world’s largest chimpanzee sanctuary. Jack, Nadia, Vanna, and Kiley would never be used for experimentation again.

Fast forward more than ten years: Today 264 chimpanzees live on 12 islands built on Save the Chimp’s 150-acre sanctuary in south Florida. Most are from research, but some, like Cody, are from the entertainment industry. Others, like April, were victims of the pet trade. Garfield has transformed into a magnificent 22-year-old, who is the proud leader of his family. After years of sleeping on concrete floors and steel benches, Nadia and Vanna have soft blankets to sleep upon. Jack and Kiley have room to run and climb. It’s our hope that their previous lives are, for them, a distant memory.

We also hope that sanctuary life will soon be available to hundreds of other chimpanzees. About 800 chimpanzees remain in labs today. We’re grateful that 110 are already in the process of moving to Chimp Haven, a sanctuary in Louisiana. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funds most chimpanzee research, recently announced that it would significantly reduce the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research, retiring all but 50 of the 360 government-owned chimpanzees still in labs today. Save the Chimps applauds this historic scientific and compassionate step forward, but much work remains ahead. Sanctuary space must be expanded to welcome these chimpanzees, and we must not forget the 50 government-owned chimps and 450 privately-owned lab chimps whose future is uncertain.

Sadly, Dr. Noon did not live to see these dramatic changes. She passed away in 2009 of pancreatic cancer. She lives on in the triumphant hoots of Garfield and Jack, in the warmth of Nadia and Vanna’s nest, and in the beauty that surrounds Kiley. She also lives on in the hearts and minds of the staff and volunteers whom she guided and trained to carry on her life’s work. I was fortunate to be among those whom Dr. Noon mentored, and I worked with her for six years. Today I continue to serve the chimps and Dr. Noon as Sanctuary Director. I look forward to sharing the chimps’ stories and other tidbits from behind the scenes here at Save the Chimps, and hope that you’ll join our community of supporters who make the peaceful retirement of these chimpanzees possible.

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