Seven chimps who spent their lives in research labs arrived in June at a new sanctuary in Cle Elum.

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CLE ELUM, Kittitas County —

One of the few things predictable about unusual projects is that they have unusual origins.

On 26 isolated acres on the outskirts of this small town some 80 miles east of Seattle, Keith La Chappelle spent $200,000 of his own money, with an additional $80,000 in donations, and built a large chimp house.

In June, seven adult chimps who had spent 25 to 35 years in labs — and like many lab chimps, became surplus research material — ended up here, in Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest.

And it’s all because in May 2002, La Chappelle read an article in Discover magazine about the plight of lab chimps.

It wasn’t as if La Chappelle had previously been fascinated with the lives of chimps. He grew up in a family where the kids had the usual pets and then some: cats, dogs, rabbits, ferrets, pigeons.

But that article, it simply struck a nerve.

The story described the popularity of using chimps in AIDS and hepatitis research in the 1980s and 1990s. But the experiments, it argued, contributed little to medicine.

Then, the story said, as the number of labs using chimps dwindled, there was the matter of what to do with the ones still in captivity.

Lab chimps can live to 45 or 50 years, and putting them to sleep presented public-relations problems, as wild chimps are listed as an endangered species.

According to genome research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, chimps and humans share 96 percent of our DNA sequence, and for many chimp advocates, it means we see ourselves in their family life and emotions.

Says La Chappelle, “I don’t know how to explain it. The … idea of these individuals stuck in a cage, with nowhere to go, and to keep them in those cages for decades …

“I just couldn’t imagine that. Chimps have self-awareness and understand where they’re at.”

He talks about visiting the Fauna Foundation, a chimp sanctuary in Montreal, as he began looking into building a sanctuary of his own.

He remembers watching a chimp there named Billy Joe, who died in 2006 after a lab history that included nearly 50 biopsies of his liver, bone marrow and lymph nodes.

“There was this look in his eyes. He had such kind eyes. It just spoke to me,” says La Chappelle. “And then, knowing his history in labs, that just solidified for me what a sanctuary can do for chimps.”

Providing a better life

La Chappelle and volunteers would spend a year and a half building an 18,000-cubic-foot concrete chimp house that reaches 15 feet tall and looks out over the valley below.

The “Cle Elum Seven,” as they’ve been nicknamed, were the last remaining chimps at the Buckshire Corp. in Perkasie, Pa., which at one time leased chimps to labs. No longer used for research, they spent their days caged up.

La Chappelle heard about them through PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Buckshire didn’t mind giving up the chimps.

Its president was quoted in Philadelphia Weekly: “Chimps are expensive to house and maintain.”

The six females and one male now have interconnected rooms, a large play area and catwalks. They can swing around all over the place, nap, tear apart plastic toys, and, if the mood strikes them, take a big swallow from a bucket of water and spit 10 feet at human visitors.

And on Tuesday, the chimps get even more room to roam: a 20- by 30-foot outdoor play area made of steel pipe.

It’s all meant a drastic turn in the life of La Chappelle, 41.

Back in 2002, he was doing construction-project management for Immunex in Seattle.

He read the magazine article and called his sister, Cynthia La Chappelle, then an animal keeper at the Dallas Zoo, and asked her if starting a sanctuary was something they could do. (Cynthia is on the board of directors for Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest.)

Then Immunex was sold, and La Chappelle was laid off. But he walked away with a chunk of money.

He began his quest to help the chimps, to add one more place for them to live out their years.

Including the one in Cle Elum, there are 10 such sanctuaries in the U.S. and Canada, housing 575 chimps. Release into the wild isn’t considered an option, since lab chimps wouldn’t know how to find food or avoid predators.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, there are still 1,200 chimps living in research labs. It says the U.S. is the only country in the world that continues the large-scale use of chimps for invasive research and testing.

Chimps have been used to develop the hepatitis B vaccine, and in studying hepatitis C and malaria.

Sanctuaries, one researcher said in a New York Times article, arose from animal-rights activism. Said Dr. Stuart Zola, of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University: “I see the retirement community idea as simply another ploy by the animal-rights community to reach their eventual goal of abolishing the use of animals in research. I’m not opposed to it. But I think it is being driven by an animal-rights point of view.”

Near university institute

La Chapelle chose Cle Elum for its proximity to Deborah and Roger Fouts.

He took the summer program at Central Washington University’s Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute.

Deborah Fouts, its director, and her husband, Roger Fouts, dean of graduate studies and research at the university, have been at the forefront of behavioral studies that involve teaching chimps American Sign Language.

Says Roger Fouts about La Chappelle’s chimp sanctuary, “He researched it very carefully. He knew what he was getting into. It’s a commitment you make for life. They don’t go away to college.”

These days, with a chimp house in place, La Chappelle hopes the donations will come in to support the facility and the three individuals who have joined the staff.

It’s a very low-budget operation. The Cle Elum Safeway is a major donor, through daily boxes of produce.

Breakfast for the chimps consists of fruit smoothies. Lunch is vegetables and low-sugar fruit like tomatoes and apples. Dinner might be an assortment that includes vegetable soup, baked potatoes, oatmeal and rice.

Originally, La Chappelle had named his group “Chimpanzee Retirement Sanctuary Northwest.”

He took out “retirement” from the name.

“It’s not retirement. They’re really still captive chimpanzees,” he says. “It’s dignity. We’re giving them dignity.”

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or