Ah, the North Georgia mountains. Rivers, streams, and endless miles of forest filled with white-tailed deer, bear, and chimpanzees. Wait! Chimpanzees? Yep! Located near Blue Ridge, Georgia, is a 236-acre forested sanctuary that is giving chimpanzees who were used for scientific research a chance at a new life--a chimpanzee Fresh Path.
Project Chimps is the newest chimpanzee sanctuary in the United States and was founded to provide lifelong care to 200 former research chimpanzees.
For these chimps who were all raised in captivity, this new life is exciting, terrifying, and awkward. Project Chimps is the first of its kind to try a new model to recreate the social structure of wild chimpanzees in a captive setting- a model called a fission-fusion society. One of the major adjustments for the chimps is being in contact with the opposite sex, something that was only allowed in laboratories for breeding. Ali Crumpacker, the sanctuary’s executive director explains, “They’ve never known anything different from what they’ve known before. It’s kind of like two gender-specific boarding schools get together and have a dance--it’s exciting, confusing, and can produce some anxiety.” Sounds like junior high, doesn’t it?
Crumpacker goes on to say, “Because males and females react differently to situations, there is a lot of learning that must take place, and they have to ease into it.”
The well-qualified staff at the sanctuary watch the chimps and carefully observe their microexpressions to make sure the interactions are a positive experience for everyone. “The chimps range from 8 to 34 in age, so many of them are in their late teens and early 20’s; their interactions are similar to human interaction and they face the same social pressures,” says Crumpacker.
Another first for the chimps is the chance to go outside. Many of the chimps love the outdoor space of their forested, six-acre habitat and spend as much time outside as possible.
“We ring a dinner bell at the end of the day, but not everyone wants to come in. Eddie likes to spend the night outside and skip dinner so he can have the whole habitat to himself.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Arthur, an older male, prefers to stay inside all day and night. He will walk with his girlfriend, Krystal, to the door leading to the outdoors, give her a big hug, and send her out for the day while he waits for her to come back. “He loves indoor activities and is a really big fan of movie night,” Crumpacker says.
For Crumpacker and her staff, the most rewarding part of their jobs is seeing these chimps evolve and come into their own. “When Arthur finally decides to go outside, I think we’ll pop champagne!”
Until then, the staff has already had many great victories. One of those came with a chimp named Harriet, pictured at the beginning of the story, who took the brave step of experiencing the outside world. “She would cling to the very edge of tunnel, terrified of going outside. She actually knuckle tapped the ground to make sure that it was solid. Now she enjoys being both inside and outside.”
Another rewarding thing for the staff is watching as the chimps react to visitors. Though they are never free to physically interact with those who come to the sanctuary, some of the chimps get very excited when groups come, especially groups of children. “When chimps like Noel and Sarah hear kids approaching the habitat, they run to the viewing windows and crowd around to get a look. The kids think they’re coming to be entertained by seeing chimps, but it’s actually the other way around--the chimps are entertained by the kids. The kids will sing and dance for the chimps, and it makes the chimps happy.”
Though it may not be an obvious match between chimpanzees and the Blue Ridge Mountains, Crumpacker and her staff feel that North Georgia is a great location for this sanctuary.
“We are extremely fortunate to have been able to locate here,” explains Crumpacker. “The entire community is very supportive and positive about our presence in the area. Due to the high retiree population, the volunteer corps is bursting with so many people with different skill sets that help us accomplish what we need to do.”
The organization greatly appreciates its current 200 active volunteers with another 100 more people on the waiting list. Though most of the volunteers do not actually work with the chimps, Project Chimps offers a unique opportunity for anyone who has a passion for wildlife and helping them. In fact, volunteers at Project Chimps go above and beyond to provide an excellent habitat for the chimps. In the pictures above, volunteers Donna DiLorenzo and Shannon Michael prep stuffed Kongs for the chimps while volunteer Alice Bergman prepares enrichments. (Photos: Crystal Alba/Project Chimps)
Crumpacker says, “I’ve worked with nonprofits my entire career, and I’ve never seen a volunteer force like this one in regards to the number of people who are willing to work and the commitment that they show.”
You still may be wondering why there is a need for a chimpanzee sanctuary in the Southeast since chimpanzees are indigenous to Africa. According to the Lincoln Park Zoo’s Project ChimpCARE census, there are approximately 2,000 chimpanzees in the United States. At one time, the majority of these chimpanzees lived in laboratories, but today there are more chimpanzees living in sanctuaries where they can live the lives for which they were designed. This need came to the forefront in September of 2015 with the end of unrestricted invasive experiments on chimpanzees in the United States. At this time, chimpanzees were recognized as being endangered and were placed under the protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The National Institutes of Health, on the heels of the ESA decision, made a final announcement in November 2015 that it would no longer fund invasive chimpanzee research and would retire all government-owned chimpanzees to the federal sanctuary.
With the end of this experimentation, chimpanzees in private research institutions also needed a forever home. Project Chimps was able to reach an agreement in 2014 with the University of Louisiana’s New Iberia Research Center (NIRC), which houses the largest population of privately-owned chimpanzees in the United States, to provide sanctuary to all of NIRC’s chimpanzees.
When a 236-acre sanctuary that had been designed for gorillas became available near Blue Ridge, Georgia, the Humane Society of the United States provided the capital to purchase it. In 2016, after tireless hours of work on the part of the Project Chimps staff and volunteers, the first chimpanzees came to live at the sanctuary. Today, the structures originally built for gorillas are known as “villas” and are part of a six-acre enclosure known as the Peachtree Habitat. Here the chimps have their own place that includes climbing structures and areas that afford enriching activities for the chimpanzees where they can forage, climb, and play. Pictured below is one of the villas and the boundaries of the Peachtree Habitat. (Photos: Crystal Alba/Project Chimps)
Though great strides have been made, there is still much work to do. Project Chimps is home to 59 chimpanzee, buts its staff is working to move nearly 150 more to permanent sanctuary.
“Our Peachtree Habitat will be full within the next couple of transports, and we’ll break ground on a new, 8-acre habitat that will cost millions of dollars and will include two large structures for more chimps,” Crumpacker explains.
If you want to see all that is going on at Project Chimps, there are many ways to visit. They offer group tours, volunteer vacations, and one-day experiences in addition to other special events. The sanctuary grounds included a historic, 19th century, homestead cabin that Project Chimps uses for meetings, events and intern housing. The lush fields and koi pond around the cabin are used for outdoor events, like Project Chimps’ Discovery Days, and will one day be available for rent for private events and agritourism. You can also sponsor a chimpanzee, donate items from their Amazon Wish List, and make a virtual visit to the sanctuary by visiting www.projectchimps.org.
For Crumpacker and staff, the end goal is simple: get all 200 chimps to the sanctuary. “We look forward to getting all the chimps here and seeing all of them go through the transformation of becoming who they’re meant to be. After years in research, it’s their time to live.”