Sarah Baeckler-Davis shows off the 200 acres of green hills in North Georgia where she plans to house chimpanzees. She points out the clinic, a series of primate villas, and then she opens the door to the building with the kitchen.
“Back there is the chimp smoothie bar,” said Baeckler-Davis, gesturing toward a series of blenders sitting on a counter.
Chimps won’t be able to sit there, but they can watch what’s being made through a window. Baeckler-Davis said her team at the sanctuary will be working with mostly whole foods and fresh fruit. The chimps will likely have smoothies for breakfast.
Caring for chimps has been Baeckler-Davis’ life’s work. She’s run a sanctuary for chimps before in Washington state. And she hadn’t actually planned on starting another one, but then she met 220 chimps at a lab in Louisiana, the New Iberia Research Center.
“After having gone to New Iberia, I just I couldn’t not do it,” Baeckler-Davis said. “I looked into the eyes of those chimps there and there was no way I would be able to live with myself if I didn’t at least try” to give the chimps a home.
When the National Institutes of Health quit funding biomedical testing on chimpanzees last year, that put most research chimps out of work. Many of the primates are owned by NIH and federal law promises them a spot in the national sanctuary, Chimp Haven, located in Louisiana.
But there are around 300 others at private research centers, including those at New Iberia, who are considered “privately owned” and were left with no such retirement plans.
“There’s a legal framework that should provide sanctuary for all of the government-owned chimps,” Baeckler-Davis said. “But for these privately owned chimps, there’s no parachute for them.”
They could, for example, retire in place — at the research centers. The Texas Biomedical Institute, which owns a couple dozen of these chimps, said that's an option there.
Some also go to zoo exhibits. That’s been a solution for another lab with 50 or so chimps, Yerkes National Primate Research Center here in Georgia.
Steve Ross, director of a research center on apes at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, coordinated a transfer.
“Last year, we worked with Yerkes primate center to move a group of seven chimps to Chattanooga zoo in Tennessee,” Ross said. “That seemed like a good opportunity. They had a good environment.”
He said, during such transfers, they take the chimps’ health and social groups into account. And so far, the Yerkes chimps have adjusted well in Chattanooga. Zoos, Ross said, have welcomed plenty of research chimpanzees before.
“I think more and more zoos are able to, and are willing to, play more and more of a sanctuary role,” Ross said.
But in the eyes of some animal welfare advocates, like Laboratory Primate Advocacy Group president Rachel Weiss, research centers and zoo exhibits shouldn’t count as retirement.
Weiss is part of a lawsuit that’s trying to block an effort from Yerkes to send another batch of chimps abroad to a zoo in England.
Labs and zoos can provide a fine setting for the primates, she said. But at the end of the day, they weren’t built solely for the care of the animals. Most zoos, for example, she said, are set up so visitors can see the chimps and so that handlers can reach them.
“Chimps who have been living in laboratories for their whole life, a lot of them — a lot of the older ones especially — were used in invasive studies,” Weiss said, “devastating invasive studies. And they deserve more than that.”
She said they deserve to be in a sanctuary setting, where they can lead lives of their own.
As with human retirement plans, a big issue in all of this is funding. The eight or so existing chimpanzee sanctuaries in the U.S. are close to capacity, although some could expand with more resources, Weiss said.
Baeckler-Davis is able to launch her new sanctuary, Project Chimps, partly because she was able to take on a mostly built facility in North Georgia that once housed gorillas.
She is also receiving financial help from New Iberia while the chimps are in transition. Ramesh Kolluru, head of research at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette where the center is located, said it looked for a retirement partner that could absorb a large number of chimps, as it wanted to preserve its animals’ social groups.
Even so, Baeckler-Davis, whose sanctuary will be privately funded, will need more money. She estimates it costs $20,000 per year to care for one unemployed chimp, and she’s got 220 coming from New Iberia. She wants her facility to be available for the chimps at other private labs, too.
“It’s not cost-effective at all,” Baeckler-Davis said. “But the alternative for a lot of research animals would be euthanasia. With chimps, they’re so much like us. It’s not possible to justify, when there’s an alternative and when we know how closely they experience the world to us.”
Baeckler-Davis and her team are welcoming their first group of retirees next month. They expect it will take three to five years to transport all of the chimpanzees from New Iberia to the North Georgia sanctuary.
Once the chimps are settled, they will get to roam the sanctuary’s wide open greenspace, drink smoothies probably and, Baeckler-Davis hopes, be chimps.