For most of their lives, they were kept in tiny enclosures as guiltless prisoners, mere test subjects exploited for having a physiology analogous to our own. But now, after nearly 40 years of captivity, seven retired lab chimpanzees are learning what it means to be alive outdoors. Gone are the cold, metal cages and sterile biomedical equipment, replaced with a playground haven and the golden warmth of sunlight. All of this was made possible thanks to the tireless efforts of volunteers, who, over the last year, worked to build the chimps a new retirement facility. And seeing the animals joyfully exploring their new home, they say, makes it all worth it.
Workers at the Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest in Cle Elum, Washington have come to know the seven retired lab chimps in their care as few people ever will, noting that this closeness has been life-changing. But while each chimp has come to display its own distinct personality, they share the same stark background as lab animals -- repeated test subjects of experiments towards a hepatitis vaccine.
"Some of them have never been outdoors, as far as we know," says J.B. Goodrich, who helped build the animals' new outdoor facility. "So to give them two acres of relative freedom, to let them enjoy the sun overhead with no bars in the way, grass underneath their feet - it's going to be life-changing for them."
"They've been able to watch us construct it, and they completely know it's for them now," she adds.
The local CBS affiliate, KVAL 13, describes the chimps new retirement area, lovingly built by sanctuary volunteers:
The details were a chimpanzee's dream come true.
There is a giant hammock made by a Boy Scout troop, an imitation termite mound, bamboo to eat - and play toys.
"Yeah, it's like a big playground - for chimps," says Goodrich.
There's even a water fountain, so that chimps don't have to go back indoors for a drink during the summer.
The seven retired chimpanzees seemed to take to their new outdoor setting immediately, exploring the structures and toys designed to return some semblance of a normal life to a group of animals whose lives have been anything but normal. "Yep, we'll remember this morning forever probably," Goodrich tells reporters.
It might be impossible to say what contribution decades of experimentation on the seven chimps was reaped in the field of biomedicine, though the impact of watching their joyful freedom may be more powerful yet -- offering clues about life, not by their flesh and blood, but by their spirit.
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