When Negra, a 49-year-old chimp who spent most of her life in biomedical research labs, first came to the Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest she was suffering from classic PTSD symptoms. It’s no wonder, since Negra had 60 “knockdowns” on her lab records, meaning she was anesthetized with a syringe or dart gun.
“Chimps are social animals, just like humans,” says Diana Goodrich, co-director of CSNW. “When we visited them in the laboratory facility before they came to the sanctuary, the others were playing with each other and excited to see us humans, but Negra stuck to herself. She watched us warily but wouldn’t give any eye contact. Sometimes she would signal to a staff member that she wanted to be groomed, but then scream and back away when touched.”
According to genome research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, chimps and humans share 96% of our DNA sequence. That makes testing drugs and experimenting on chimps a tempting precursor to human trials. That also means the dynamics of their family life and relationships are uncomfortably close to our own.
Unlike Negra, who was born in the wild in Africa and captured as an infant, most animals used in biomedical research are born into research and killed when they are no longer useful. This includes tens of thousands of monkeys every year. Thanks to Jane Goodall and others who shared their observations of chimps in the wild, it became ethically problematic to kill chimpanzees, and eventually to use them, in biomedical testing.
Since 2000, the federal government has funded one sanctuary for more than 300 retired lab chimps. A handful of other small sanctuaries that also fill this role, including CSNW, are funded by private donations. Release into the wild isn’t considered an option, since lab chimps wouldn’t know how to find food or avoid predators.
Negra was among the first group of seven chimps to retire at the sanctuary near Cle Elum, Washington, their home in 2008. There are now 16 chimps in all, who live in three separate family groups. They each have their own unique personalities and ways of making the sanctuary their home.
“Foxie, who’s in Negra’s group, bonded with a troll doll with pink hair shortly after her arrival,” Goodrich says. “Since then, donors have provided her with hundreds of dolls. Jamie, the leader of that group, loves to carry around cowboy boots when she patrols the perimeter. She has over 20 pairs in rotation. She also likes to see staff members wearing boots. We learned that Negra likes to see us dance, and claps for more entertainment when we stop.”
According to Goodrich, it takes lots of time and patience for many of the chimps to trust humans after years of living as research animals, sometimes living in cramped quarters with little mental stimulation. The chimps at CSNW have indoor and outdoor spaces, and they interact with the staff in safe ways. “We never go in with the chimps, and we’re very careful even with fencing between us,” Goodrich says. “But they can sit against the fencing and push their back up against it if they want contact. We don’t put our fingers in but will give them a knuckle rub. It’s natural for chimps to groom one another, and so that’s kind of what we’re doing with them.”
As for Negra, who has earned the title of “the Queen of the Cle Elum Seven” she’s still independent and strong-willed but has her playful ways of interacting. She really enjoys the sheets and blankets that are donated. She has a nightly ritual of sitting up on a ledge and completely covering herself with a blanket. She stays that way for a bit, then peeks her face out so that the blanket is wrapped around her body and head like a hooded poncho. A robe fit for a Queen.
Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest is located on 90 acres of farm and forested land in the Cascade mountains. One of the only sanctuaries in the country that cares for chimpanzees, it is totally funded by private donations.