Why Is This Chimp Smiling?

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Why Is This Chimp Smiling?

By James Ross Gardner on SeattleMet.com

Seven apes arrived last year in Cle Elum's Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest. They’d been used up by medical science and the entertainment industry—and left to rot in tiny cages. Then one man showed them the depths of human kindness.

Oh, it's chaos. Like a toy store after a hurricane. Scattered Fisher-Price play stations—with all those horns, buttons, and dials—thrown in with piles of brightly colored blocks, troll dolls, pink tutus, and neckties fit for circus clowns. And that’s before the residents, back from lunch, come knuckle dragging in to tear up the playroom some more, ripping cardboard boxes, tossing chairs. Some don mismatched socks on their handlike feet and build makeshift tents out of blankets. The ringleader, a chimp named Jamie, throws a tutu over her waist, goes Jackson Pollock with a fistful of Crayolas on a sheet of paper, and spits water at the humans gawking near the playroom gates.

The seven chimps at Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest, a 26-acre farm five miles east of Cle Elum, have never had it better. Until a year and half ago, the apes were the wards of a Pennsylvania company that rents out lab animals and had spent decades as medical test subjects—pumped full of drugs and split open for biopsies. At least two also had stints in showbiz.

The sanctuary, opened in 2008, is a far cry from the cramped, windowless warehouse basement the animals came from. Their 18,000-cubic-foot “chimp house” includes a roomy two-story play area, four interconnected front rooms, windows that look out onto the Cascade forests, and an outdoor area where the apes swing on the monkey bars of a 15-foot climbing structure. A staff of primatologists serves them fruit smoothies in the mornings, stages elaborate birthday parties involving fruit-filled piñatas, and films their daily antics, especially those of Jamie, a 32-year-old primeval Huck Finn whose knack for outwitting other chimps keeps the staff scratching their heads.

For Sarah Baeckler, who runs the sanctuary with two former Central Washington University classmates, the creation of CSNW came as a bittersweet triumph at the end of a painful and sometimes frightening decade of watching chimps suffer under the cruelest conditions. For Keith LaChappelle, who drained his life savings to create the sanctuary, CSNW culminates six years of labor, during which he was forced to confront the source of his once ample riches.

LaChappelle read a Discover article in 2003 that changed his life. A construction project manager at Immunex, a bioengineering firm on Seattle’s Western Avenue, LaChappelle was thumbing through a year-old copy of the magazine when he came across “An Embarrassment of Chimps,” a story about a sanctuary in Montreal that rescued 15 chimpanzees from a New York lab.

The article plunged LaChappelle into the world of captive chimpanzees. He learned how researchers infect hundreds of our closest relatives—chimps share more than 95 percent of our DNA—with viruses like HIV and hepatitis, inject them with unproven drugs, cut them open for organ biopsies, and discard them when they’re no longer of use.

LaChappelle was feeling discarded himself. When he started at Immunex 11 years earlier he was just out of the Navy, where he’d worked on nuclear propulsion systems and was, he says, the only seaman on his battleship who didn’t cheer when it was announced in 1991 that the U.S. had invaded Iraq. He oversaw the building and renovation of laboratories at Immunex, which manufactured the drug Leukine, designed to raise the white blood cell count of leukemia patients undergoing chemo. In a room LaChapelle had no access to, Immunex kept mice for testing, which nagged at him. Growing up in a Denver suburb and rural Minnesota, he and his sister reigned over an ark of critters—dogs, cats, guinea pigs, ducks, rabbits, and ferrets. Testing on mice was bad enough, he thought, but one day he overheard an employee talk about Immunex potentially contracting out Leukine experiments on chimpanzees.

The Discover article further spurred his guilt. “It talked about how a lot of chimpanzees aren’t actively being used for research,” LaChappelle explains, “but they’re still languishing in these five-by-five lab cages because there’s nowhere for them to go.”

Now the company that had recently acquired Immunex was about to lay him off, and the six-figure severance package barely dulled the sting. He was 36 years old with no job and no plans for the future. But he did have $200,000. He faxed the article to his sister Cynthia, at the time a caretaker at the Dallas Zoo. He included a note: “You want to start an ape sanctuary with me?”

Then he hopped on a plane.

He visited the handful of existing sanctuaries around the country, such as Save Chimps in Florida. He asked questions and studied the construction of chimp houses. In 2004 he made his way to Montreal’s Fauna Foundation, the sanctuary in the Discover article. There he met Billy Jo. The chimp had undergone nearly 50 biopsies in labs and, under the hallucinogenic effects of the tranquilizer ketamine, chewed off his own thumbs. LaChappelle looked into the chimp’s eyes and saw the depth of intelligence and awareness. “After that it was no longer just an ideal or dream,” LaChappelle says. “I had to do something.”

Humans and chimpanzees—which broke off from a common ancestor 6 million years ago—have a complex relationship to say the least. In the twentieth century alone, we used chimps as crash test dummies, carved them up to better understand the human body, and dressed them in diapers and tuxedos and beat them into submission so they’d make us laugh.

We started to understand them, too. Through Jane Goodall’s observations in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania in the ’60s and ’70s, we discovered chimpanzees’ profound intelligence, that they make and use tools (such as twigs to extract termites from holes), mourn the loss of dead offspring, and perform elaborate “rain dances” during downpours.

Chimps in captivity, which can live to up to 60 years, have learned as many as 800 words in American Sign Language. In 1995 Roger Fouts, the primatologist at Central Washington University’s Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute—renowned for his role in teaching Washoe the chimp sign language—visited a New York lab for a reunion with Booee, a chimp whom he’d taught to sign a quarter of a century earlier. Despite not having seen his teacher in 16 years, the chimp immediately began signing Fouts’s name.

Chimps remember. And that may be the most chilling aspect of their role in medical experiments. Today some 1,200 chimps are still in use for invasive biomedical research, according to the Humane Society of the United States. We’ve subjected them to our worst diseases and sliced away at their organs, yes, but we’ve also cramped them into tiny cages, where they spend decades awaiting the next experiment or death.

Chimp No. 522 had a habit. Confined to a cage in a windowless basement, the female ape plucked her hair right down to the skin. Not indiscriminate plucking. Careful plucking—hours and hours to maintain a teardrop shape of bald skin that extended from her chest to her stomach, exposing a moon-white and freckled potbelly.

Chimps had little more to do at Buckshire, the facility 40 miles north of Philadelphia that rented animals—dogs, cats, rabbits, monkeys, chimps—to labs for scientific research. No. 522 was Jamie when a caretaker felt enough of a bond to call her by name. She was No. 522 when she was shipped off to labs for injections of unproven hepatitis vaccines or for another liver biopsy.

If you’re a caretaker at Buckshire it’s easier to think of the animals as numbers. In 1994 a former-employee–turned-whistleblower claimed she’d witnessed, among other atrocities, a coworker exterminate some 20 unwanted kittens. His method: breaking their necks with his bare hands. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals snuck an undercover investigator into the company. Not only did the investigator allegedly confirm the whistleblower’s claims, he discovered more than 40 chimpanzees languishing in the basement.

“They were in cages that didn’t even meet the pathetic minimum standard of five-by-five-foot cages that would have met federal requirements,” recalls Mary Beth Sweetland, who led the 1994 investigation for PETA. “Imagine having nothing to look at but the cinderblock wall opposite your cage, and you’re in an area that measures approximately 18 square feet and you’ve been there for years.”

Buckshire denied the cat abuse, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees breeding- and lab-animal supply, charged the company with 16 violations, none of them enough to shut down the facility.

Go on to Part 2