Louisiana habitat a ‘retirement home’ for chimps

KEITHVILLE — Even chimpanzees need to retire.

Nestled in the pine trees of northern Louisiana, 22 miles southwest of Shreveport, is Chimp Haven, a 200-acre habitat that is home to 169 chimps from around the nation with 60 more on the way.

Most were used for medical testing for part of their lives, and Chimp Haven serves as the monkeys’ reprieve from a life of pills, needles and cages. A retirement home, if you will.

Incorporated in 1995 by co-founders Linda Brent and Amy Fultz, Chimp Haven contains three forested habitats in addition to several outdoor enclosed play yards, a veterinary clinic and internship housing. All of the chimp habitats are interconnected, so they can choose to go outside alone, with a group, or not at all, said Ashley Gordon, Chimp Haven spokesperson.

“We don’t force them to do anything,” Gordon said.

Certain chimps, however, have to be kept separate from others, she said.

More than a third of the present population is HIV or hepatitis infected. To keep the viruses from spreading, the infected chimpanzees have to be quarantined.

The complications don’t stop there. Some are diabetic, others are overweight or have heart problems. All of these issues are treated by Chimp Haven’s lone veterinarian, Raven Jackson. A Tuskegee University graduate, she sees to each animal individually, checking for illnesses or injuries.

“Any wounding, bites or lacerations could be signs of an altercation,” she noted.

One of the hardest things about working with the chimps is identifying each one, according to Jackson. But once accomplished, the rest is a great experience.

“(Each chimp) has its own personality and we have our own special relationships,” she said. “They are my counterparts.”

Jackson’s dedication to knowing each chimp personally gave her a special relationship with one chimp — Midget. When initially approached, she said, the chimp would spit at her. “But I made a point to go sit and talk to him. Now, he’s my chimpanzee boyfriend.”

Jackson and Chimp Haven’s employees are facing a daunting task. More than 100 chimps are coming to the habitat from the University of Louisiana/Lafayette’s Research Center at New Iberia, the largest primate research center in the country. Some 50 have arrived since January, and 61 chimps are still to come.

Chimp Haven’s current facilities would be strained with that many chimps, Gordon said. That’s why the organization started its $5 million “Road to Chimp Haven” fundraiser. The money raised would build new facilities and habitats and help support the chimps.

A big part of Chimp Haven’s fundraising efforts comes from new President and CEO Cathy Spraetz. In her fourth position in charge of a nonprofit organization, Spraetz was selected to replace co-founder Brent, who retired at the end of December.

“The reason they selected me … is (the board) wanted to take it to the next step in terms of fundraising and public awareness,” Spraetz said.

In addition to learning the names of all the newcomers, each chimp has to be introduced into one of several hierarchical peer groups, Chimp Haven co-founder Fultz said. Such introductions, however, can be tricky since many chimps were raised differently.

“A lot of things chimps do aren’t instinctual, they have to learn,” Fultz said. “It matters if they were raised by a mother or not.”

But Fultz has mastered how to introduce chimps to each other.

“It is science mixed with art. The chimps are amazing and so adaptable,” Fultz said.

Chimp Haven is open to the public once a month on select months for Discovery Days, where people can view the facilities from a large viewing platform.

Once Discovery Day ends at noon, the Chimp Chat and Chew starts for preregistered guests. These contain a catered lunch, a presentation by a staff member and an “up-close and personal look” at the residents, according to the center’s website, http://www.chimphaven.org.

All of this is done while still caring for the chimps and preparing for newcomers.

“Our staff is amazing,” Spraetz said. “Bringing in new chimps means a lot, but the staff loves what they do so you don’t see it as a strain (on resources.) They are in their element.”