ELLENSBURG — When Dar, a chimp housed at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI) at Central Washington University, died suddenly in November, the future of an already dwindling chimpanzee population there became even more pressing.
Dar’s death reduced the population to two. But even before the death, the institute had been looking at ways to acquire new chimpanzees.
Chimpanzees are deeply social and may live in groups of more than 100 in the wild. At its peak, the institute, finished in 1993, housed a family of five chimpanzees that learned American Sign Language. The chimps use signs to speak with each other and humans.
Kirk Johnson, dean of CWU’s College of the Sciences, outlined options for the center in a report to university President Jim Gaudino and his Cabinet last week. Johnson said every acceptable option for creating a proper environment for the remaining chimpanzees, Tatu and Loulis, means adding more chimpanzees or moving the two to a sanctuary.
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The decisions in the report last week revolve around the cost of building renovations required to add new chimps, the program’s value to the university and what’s best for the chimps.
“We’re left with the options of closing it down and finding homes for them or bringing in new members as the two most viable options,” Johnson said.
The center is a sanctuary for chimpanzees and a research center for behavioral and primate-care research. It is open to the public for regular Chimposiums, where guests can visit and learn more about chimpanzees.
Adding three to five chimps to bring the population to an acceptable number would require a $1.9 million remodel and state funding.
As social as they are, chimps are deeply territorial, and the center would need barriers and enclosures to properly integrate newcomers with the current population.
Another option is to move the chimps to a sanctuary elsewhere.
The nonprofit group Friends of Washoe, named for the chimp family matriarch, “owns” the chimps, while CWU owns the facility.
The group could move the chimps to a sanctuary, assuming it finds one with room, but that would most likely cause stress for Tatu and Loulis. The chimpanzees have lived as a single family for almost 33 years.
Johnson noted it might also mean the effective end of a valued tourism and outreach facility and loss of name recognition for the university.
Records from CHCI show it had about 6,000 visitors last year, 84 percent of which were from outside of the county, and 24 percent came to Ellensburg solely to visit the center.
Since Johnson started his review in February, feedback has supported adding chimps, he said.
He’s met with various constituents, including Friends of Washoe, CHCI Director Mary Lee Jensvold, community leaders and the CWU student government.
Some business owners have signed a petition in support of adding chimps, and earlier this month the Ellensburg City Council voted unanimously to write a letter to Gaudino backing renovating the facility and adding chimps.
Support for remodel
The majority of speakers at a meeting of the CWU student-club senate supported the remodel, Johnson said, as did most members of the faculty senate.
His recommendations also included re-emphasizing research at the facility. Two of the plans would reorganize the program or add staffers to expand the amount of research done through CHCI.
Jensvold said more research staff would mean more publishing, but she disagreed with the implication that the center’s research output is below par or lacks value.
She is the single faculty member producing CHCI-related research, since Roger and Deborah Fouts, the program’s founders, retired.
She said she publishes once or twice yearly and has been invited to conferences on primate behavior and captive primate-care research.
“Other people outside of Central seem to recognize what we’re doing in terms of research,” she said. “Maybe some people see it as less valuable, but it’s gobbled up by journals.”
Beyond her research, there is also work from students. Johnson’s review found that CWU’s primate-behavior program faculty and students have generated about 100 presentations and manuscripts in the past 10 years.
Linda Schactler, director of public affairs at the university, said the best estimate she could offer for any decision from the Cabinet would be in May, after the current legislative session ends and budgets are finalized.
The legislative session officially ends next Sunday but has been extended for last-minute budget battles before.
How much of CWU’s $87 million in capital-budget requests makes it through Olympia will go a long way toward determining the chimps’ future.
Jensvold said the decision needs to come sooner than later.
“Tatu and Loulis need something done for them soon,” she said. “It has been going on for too long.”