Captive Chimp Sees Open Sky For The First Time In His Life

“They were galloping across fields, and they’ve never had space to move at that speed before and go those distances.”

Bo the chimpanzee had never been outside before. He was 13 years old, and he’d spent most of his life inside of a cage at a research laboratory. 

In May, everything changed for Bo and 30 other chimpanzees who’d been used in the labs at New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana — they were moved to a sanctuary run by Project Chimps in Blue Ridge, Georgia, where they’d get to spend their remaining years in retirement. 

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Bo gazing out into the outdoor area from the safety of his villa | Project Chimps

The sanctuary team had built the chimps special villas, where they’d lived for the last several months — but the grand plan was to give them access to a huge, 6-acre outdoor habitat. After a lot of hard work, the outdoor habitat was finally ready this month. 

When the villa door magically opened on Bo’s villa, which he shared with five other chimps, and exposed a vast field with grass and trees, Bo didn’t know what to do. He stood at the doorway, hesitating. Eventually, another chimpanzee named Lance pushed Bo aside and leapt out himself. Once outside, Lance spun around, looking both curious and bewildered.

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Lance gazes up at the sky on his first day in the outdoor habitat at Project Chimps. | Crystal Alba

“Obviously, we don’t know what he’s thinking, but [based on] our perception of his facial expressions and the way he was posturing, he [Lance] was definitely confused, probably wondering where the bars were,” Ali Crumpacker, executive director of Project Chimps, told The Dodo. “And being able to see an unobstructed view of the sky — that would be the first time that they had the ability to do that.”

The other male chimps followed Lance’s lead — they each stepped outside, feeling grass under their feet for the first time, and gazing up at the trees.

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Lance giving Bo a reassuring hug as the two of them explore the outdoors | Crystal Alba

“They’ve never been for a free-for-all outside,” Crumpacker said. “The lab ... had them in cages that were outdoors, so they could experience temperature changes in the sky and weather, but there were bars overhead and no grass under their feet and no trees to climb.”

Some of the males gave each other reassuring hugs as they explored. And the longer they spent outside, the braver they got.

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Eddie finds a pomegranate as he investigates the outdoor habitat. | Crystal Alba

“They were galloping across fields, and they’ve never had space to move at that speed before and go those distances,” Crumpacker said.

Earlier that day, the team had also opened up the outdoors to a group of nine females. “They kind of wandered out and wandered back in, going from the unknown back to the familiar,” Crumpacker said.

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Latricia, the female group’s alpha, was the first to explore the outdoor habitat. | Crystal Alba

One female — a 13-year-old named Emma — seemed determined to get some alone time. At first, she stayed inside the villa while the others went out. When they returned, she dashed out on her own.

“At one point, all of the females had picked up some tasty snacks to eat and they had gone back into their bedrooms, where they felt comfortable to eat their snacks, and Emma took that opportunity to go out on her own,” Crumpacker said. “She went all the way to the other side, as far as she could go. Then she found a platform to sit on and she started climbing some the structures we had added. It was like she’d been looking for that opportunity to be independent, and to just have a moment of peace away from her siblings, and get out on her own and be adventurous.”

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Emma climbing a firehose bridge to get some alone time | Crystal Alba

The sanctuary team still needs to give the 16 other chimps access to the outdoors, but bad weather has temporarily delayed them. 

Prior to arriving at the sanctuary, the chimps likely didn’t have much independence to do what they wanted. While the rescue team doesn’t exactly know what their former lives were like — or even what kinds of experiments they were used for — chimps rarely get to express all their normal behaviors in lab setting.

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Four of the males venturing through the outdoor area together | Crystal Alba

In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) declared that all chimps in the U.S. should be classified as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which essentially gave lab chimps the same protection as wild chimps. This move meant that laboratories had to stop using chimps for research, and retire them to sanctuaries

So far, Project Chimps has been able to retire and rehome 31 chimps to the sanctuary, and they’re determined to get the 180 chimps who still remain at the New Iberia lab.

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Jason gazing through one of the viewing windows in the outdoor habitat | Crystal Alba

“We’re making plans to bring in the rest in groups,” Crumpacker said. “We’re doing construction constantly for the next five years, looking for sponsorships and donations to support that construction. But if we’re able to say on track, it will take us about five years to build enough enclosures to bring all of the chimps here.”

rescue lab chimps feel grass first time
Gertrude galloping through the outdoor habitat | Crystal Alba

While the team works to make that happen, they’re doing everything they can help Bo, Lance, Emma and the others feel comfortable with their newfound freedom.

“You know as a human that this is a positive experience and that it will be wonderful, but you can also appreciate from their perspective that this is really weird and scary,” Crumpacker said. “But you hope that those moments are short-lived, and that they understand that it’s fantastic."

To help retire more lab chimps and bring them to the sanctuary, you can make a donation to Project Chimps.