Heart of Louisiana: Chimp Haven - FOX 8, WVUE, fox8live.com, weather, app, news, saints

Heart of Louisiana: Chimp Haven

KEITHVILLE, La. - For decades, chimpanzees have been used in medical research. But now, most of those chimps are being retired by the federal government. And after spending most of their lives in cages and test labs, the chimps are getting a new beginning at the national chimpanzee sanctuary in Northwest Louisiana. FOX 8's Dave McNamara brings us inside Chimp Haven in tonight's Heart of Louisiana.

"Henry was a former pet," said Cathy Willis Spraetz, Chimp Haven president and CEO. "He lived in the man's garage and mostly in the dark for 15 years." 

Henry was near death when he arrived at the haven seven years ago. As he was nursed back to health, he kept himself isolated from the other chimpanzees - he didn't understand their social behavior, and he wasn't accepted.

"He would sit out in the rain up on one of these perches just so happy to be outside, but at the same time afraid to go inside for what he thought might be waiting for him," she said.

Over the years, Henry slowly earned his place in the group and became the dominant male.

"The first thing he does when he goes out into the habitat is climb the highest tree, and he is out in the tree up in the tree for hours at a time surveying chimp haven and seeing what's going on," Spraetz said. "He's very, very observant and curious."

Henry's story is similar to the transformation that takes place with the other chimps at the haven. Most of them have spent their lives in captivity as the subjects of medical research.

"They may have been in HIV and AIDS research, hepatitis research," Spraetz said. "They may have gone under anesthesia hundreds of times."

Chimp Haven is a sanctuary - a national retirement home for the government's research chimpanzees.

They get excited when it's time to eat. They move freely between sleeping quarters and play yards, and the forest.

"One of the key elements of the work that we do here is the idea of self-determination," Spraetz said.

The idea at Chimp Haven is to get the animals out of their pens and freely roaming the woods. And here, water is used as the natural boundary.

"They can't swim," Spraetz said. "They have this huge muscle mass, and so it provides that natural barrier. They are not going to go into the moat."

Here the chimps act like chimps - it's their territory. They forage for food in simulated termite mounds, care for their young, climb and play, or sit and observe. And they have special talents - like Brent, who paints with his tongue and recently won a $10,000 prize in a national art competition.

"They definitely have personalities, and they're very smart animals," Spraetz said. "They understand."

Chimp Haven is now expanding as the federal government retires 300 of its research chimps.

"They have given so much to human beings - and not willingly, I want to add," Spraetz said. "You know, we have held them captive and used them for our own purposes, and now we have a great opportunity to give back to them what was stolen."

These chimps don't have the skills to survive in the wild. The Louisiana sanctuary is now their wilderness home.

Several times a year, Chimp Haven opens its gates to visitors. You can see the 200 chimps during the "chimpanzee discovery day" Saturday, Nov. 16 from 9 a.m. to noon at the facility in Keithville, La. It's located about 30 miles south of Shreveport.

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