Chimps taste 'next best thing' to freedom in Wash. state

    CLE ELUM, Wash. - Three years ago, seven chimpanzees arrived at Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest in Cle Elum - a sort of retirement home for chimps who've been used in laboratory tests their entire lives.

    The sanctuary survives on private donations, and those donations have now created something entirely new for the chimpanzees.

    It's not exactly freedom - but it's the next best thing.

    For a year, on a converted farm just outside of Cle Elum, the warmth of the sun fueled a labor of love. Week after week, volunteers built an electric fence, and then another.

    It would be, they hoped, containment - but for the sake of freedom.

    And watching it all from a distance was Jaimie, the leader - who has a thing for cowboy boots.

    Also watching were Burrito, the only male, and the youngest; Foxie, who is obsessed with troll dolls of all things - and the rest.

    "Just helping them. Helping them have a better life is fulfilling enough," says Amber Tegantvoort. "I know all of us feel the same way. It's incredible to see their lives get better because we're helping."

    And so, this would be a big day for Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest.

    And for J.B. Mulcahy.

    "Once you meet a chimp and get to know an individual, for me that changed everything," he says.

    And for his wife Diana Goodrich.

    "They've been able to watch us construct it, and they completely know it's for them now."

    But also for Jody, who loves blankets; and for Negra, the oldest of the group - who spent more than 30 years in a cage the size of a bathroom.

    Before coming here, all of them were used for research in laboratories - used over and over again for hepatitus vaccine testing.

    "Some of them have never been outdoors, as far as we know," says Mulcahy. "So to give them two acres of relative freedom, to let them enjoy the sun overhead with no bars in the way, grass underneath their feet - it's going to be life-changing for them."

    The details were a chimpanzee's dream come true.

    There is a giant hammock made by a Boy Scout troup, an imitation termite mound, bamboo to eat - and play toys.

    "Yeah, it's like a big playground - for chimps," says Mulcahy.

    There's even a water fountain, so that chimps don't have to go back indoors for a drink during the summer.

    "I'm so excited! Yeah, I can hardly stand it," says Diana.

    Three of the chimps were captured at a very young age in the wild. But as far as anyone can tell, none of the others have been in an open space in their lives - ever.

    That's about to change - as the door opened to let the chimpanzees out for the first time.

    Jamie had been the first out, with the rest close behind. One of them was jumping up and down. There were moments of apprehension - it was all so new and foreign

    But Negra was calmly eating lettuce. Missy and Foxie took off to get a look around.

    And then Burrito stood up and strutted like a matador - and followed it up with an amazing little chimpanzee dance.

    Within moments, there was Burrito again, grabbing Negra - and then a great big hug for Annie - part joy, part reassurance from a friend.

    It was everything any of them had hoped for.

    Five minutes later though - there came the moment they had all dreaded.

    Negra touched the electric fence - and got a nasty shock. She screamed and ran off. And all of them came charging back in, howling and scared.

    The scare was short-lived, however, and they were out again before long.

    But Negra was a slow learner. She managed to shock herself again. But eventually she got the point.

    And so it went for the entire afternoon - chimps at play in a place of their own.

    "I just can't believe they're all so comfortable walking out there," said Mulcahy.

    Who knows what evolutionary echoes were aroused in their memories by the sun on their backs and the ground underfoot. But it's probably safe to say that for seven creatures, this was the finest day of their lives.

    And quite possibly for a couple of proud human beings, too.

    "This was an amazing day," says Diana.

    Adds Mulcahy, "Yep, we'll remember this morning forever probably."

    The United States is one of just two countries left in the world that still use chimpanzees for biomedical research.

    J.B. Mulcahy and Diana Goodrich say it needs to stop for ethical reasons.


    For more information, visit Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest's website >>

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