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Monday, April 26, 2010

The Lucky Seven: Q&A with Sarah Baeckler

I hope you’ll have the opportunity to join HSLF this Sunday, May 2, at one of the many Party Animals events held around the country, rallying in support of H.R. 1326, the Great Ape Protection Act, to phase out invasive research on chimpanzees and retire the remaining federally owned chimps to sanctuaries. We’ll be speaking to animal advocates on a nationwide conference call, and will be joined by Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), a scientific researcher and one of the principal sponsors of the bill, and by Sarah Baeckler, a primatologist and executive director of Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest. I had the opportunity to speak with Sarah about the rescued chimps known as the “Lucky Seven,” and wanted to share some of her thoughts with blog readers leading up to this weekend’s event.

Foxie_Chimp
Foxie was used for hepatitis vaccine research before
retiring at Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest.

Michael Markarian: Can you tell us about the history of the lives of the Lucky Seven? 

Sarah Baeckler: Until June 2008, Jamie, Jody, Foxie, Annie, Missy, Negra and Burrito were living in a windowless basement about the size of your bathroom. They had all been used in research for decades, but the company that owned them stopped using them a few years before, so they were literally being warehoused. Before that, they were leased out to various private and federally funded research facilities for use in hepatitis C safety trials. This means they were singly housed in five-foot-by-five-foot cages, possibly only able to see one or two other chimps. They would spend a year or two at a facility on “protocol” and then get shipped back to the owner in Pennsylvania, and then wait for their next location. Most of the females were used as breeders also. Amongst the females, they had almost 25 babies—none of whom they were allowed to raise. The labs generally pulled them from their mothers within hours of birth and raised them separately. Earlier in their lives, we know that some of the chimps were also used as entertainers and kept as pets. 

MM: What were the chimps like when they first arrived at the sanctuary? Can you describe those first days?

SB: We actually got to meet the chimps for the first time when they were still in Pennsylvania. It was a pretty heartbreaking scene. They had no access to the outdoors or sunshine, almost no enrichment (stuff to do/play with) and no space to run, play, or climb. So I vividly remember seeing the trailer pull up here at Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest—it was a great day and still brings chills when I think about it! We unloaded the chimps one at a time and introduced them to their new home. They were quiet for the most part—pretty reserved and cautious. There weren’t many natural chimp vocalizations like pant hooting or laughing. But it seemed that they knew they were somewhere different. They instantly made nests with the blankets we gave them (a simple pleasure they had missed out on for decades) and played with the toys we gave them. Jamie went to work scrubbing the floor with a bucket of soapy water and scrub brush we gave her. Having the opportunity to give them the space to run, climb, and feel sunshine on their faces for the first time in their lives—it was a very humbling privilege.

MM: Looking back over the first two years of their retirement, how have the chimps changed since those first days? 

SB: It’s pretty amazing to think of how much they’ve changed since those first few days. Although they still show the signs of anxiety disorders and post traumatic stress disorder after their decades in research, the good news is that they’re recovering. Unlike the quiet, near-zombies who arrived here two years ago, they’re now noisy, raucous, playful chimps who make the most of each day. Missy and Annie spend their days laughing, tickling each other, and wrestling. Burrito (our only male) delights in each and every meal, no matter what is being served. Negra, who spent two full years of her life in total isolation, loves to make a nest and quietly look out over the valley below us. Foxie, who was the shyest member of the group upon arrival, discovered her love of troll dolls (those little guys with the crazy colored hair) and is now never seen without at least one, often several. She is also now the silliest member of the group, always laughing and ready for a game. The wheels in Jamie’s head are obviously always turning—she makes up projects for herself like trying to take the bolts off of the windows with the plastic wrenches we give her. And Jody seems to love finally having the opportunity to simply rest. In addition, they make all the normal chimpanzee noises and do many natural chimpanzee behaviors, which are excellent signs for their psychological wellbeing. They are getting to be chimps for the first time in their lives!

MM: What do you think will be the key to getting the rest of the chimpanzees out of laboratories and into sanctuary?

SB: The key to getting chimps into sanctuaries is creating enough space for them. I think by learning the stories of chimps like Negra and her friends here at CSNW and the hundreds of chimps at other reputable sanctuaries, people very quickly realize that they don’t belong in labs. They experience the world in the same ways we do (pain, fear, joy, sadness) and are simply too like us to justify such treatment. Touching hearts and changing minds with these stories creates the public will to get them out. I believe the Great Ape Protection Act will pass—and then we’ll all have a lot of work to do! All of the chimpanzee sanctuaries in North America are either at or close to capacity. If we are going to house the hundreds who will be coming out of laboratories, not to mention all of the privately owned chimpanzees who also need somewhere to go, we have to start expanding. Anyone can partner with us to do this important work by donating to us or any of our partners in the sanctuary community.

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