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Leo arrives at Project Chimps this morning.

Crystal Alba/Project Chimps

U.S. chimp retirement gains momentum, as famed pair enters sanctuary

After years of experiments, a protracted battle to grant them legal “personhood,” and a life spent bouncing between two scientific facilities, two of the world’s most famous research chimpanzees have finally retired. Hercules and Leo arrived this morning at Project Chimps, a 95-hectare sanctuary in the wooded hills of Morgantown, Georgia.

In many ways, the pair had also become the face of a tortuously slow effort to move hundreds of the United States’s remaining research chimpanzees to wildlife refuges. Their arrival at Project Chimps suggests plans to retire these animals—which can live up to 50 years in captivity—may be back on track.

“For the first time, there are more chimpanzees in sanctuaries than there are in labs,” says Stephen Ross, director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Illinois, and board chair of Chimp Haven in Keithville, Louisiana, the only sanctuary authorized to take government-owned chimps. “Hercules and Leo are representative of a movement that’s finally bearing fruit.”

Hercules and Leo were born in 2006 at the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana, home to the world’s largest collection of privately owned lab chimps. In 2011, New Iberia loaned the duo out to the State University of New York in Stony Brook. There, they lived in a three-room enclosure and researchers inserted small electrodes into their muscles to study the evolution of bipedal walking. While there, the Nonhuman Rights Project—an animal rights group based in Coral Springs, Florida—filed a lawsuit to have Hercules and Leo declared legal persons and moved to a sanctuary in Florida. Despite multiple appeals over 2 years, the effort failed, and the chimps were shipped back to New Iberia in 2015.

That year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared all U.S. research chimpanzees endangered, effectively ending research on them. And the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, said it would end all support for such research. Yet from 2015 to mid-2017, only 73 chimpanzees entered sanctuaries, leaving nearly 600 of the animals in labs; half were owned by the government, half by private research facilities. Both private and public labs resisted retirement, arguing that the animals were well cared for where they were. Sanctuaries—struggling for funding—also didn’t have enough space for all of them. And NIH was criticized for lacking a solid plan to retire its chimps.

Hercules in his new home at Project Chimps in Morgantown, Georgia

Crystal Alba/Project Chimps

But retirement appears to be gaining momentum. Last night, Hercules and Leo—along with seven younger males who were part of their social group at New Iberia—boarded what was essentially a long, climate-controlled horse trailer and began a 14-hour, 1000-kilometer journey from Louisiana to Georgia. Staff used video cameras and microphones to keep an eye on the animals. “If anyone is having a tantrum, we can pull over,” says Ali Crumpacker, executive director of Project Chimps. “It’s usually because a food bowl has fallen.”

At 9 a.m., the animals arrived at Project Chimps, where they made their way into one of the sanctuary’s “villas”—a four-level enclosure with ladders, swings, and hammocks. Two of the youngest chimps, Jacob and Oscar, both 7 years old, entered fairly quickly, says Leslie Wade, Project Chimps’s manager of communications. Leo was next and seemed eager to explore. Hercules hesitated, even when Leo tried to coax him in; the two sat together for a while and embraced. When all the chimps were in, Leo tried again, and this time Hercules came.

The apes will spend their next month isolated from the rest of the sanctuary’s 31 chimpanzees to make sure they are healthy. Then, they’ll have access to a 2.5-hectacre patch of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where they can climb trees and eventually socialize with other chimps.

Crumpacker admits the transfer is probably very stressful for the chimps. “They’re moving to a strange new environment where they don’t know anyone,” human or otherwise, she says. “I think it scares the bejesus out of them.” Yet she feels it’s worth it in the long run because the apes will have opportunities such as access to the outdoors and the chance to live in more complex social groups, as they would in the wild.

Hercules and Leo—along with the rest of their social group—will spend a month in a villa like this before being given access to the rest of the sanctuary.

Crystal Alba/Project Chimps

Crumpacker says the sanctuary’s finances are in the black, even though it relies completely on donations because it takes only privately owned chimpanzees. She says Project Chimps is on track to build enough enclosures and outdoor habitats to take New Iberia’s remaining 173 chimps within 5 years.

More government-owned animals are being retired, too, according to Chimp Haven. Thirty-three have entered the sanctuary since last summer, with six more coming this week, Ross says. During the same period last year, only 11 chimpanzees came to Chimp Haven—and none the year before that. NIH pays for 75% of the care of these animals, but the sanctuary is working to raise $20 million for an expansion that it hopes will accommodate the remaining 200 or so government chimps within 3 years. “When it all adds up, we’re getting close to the end,” Ross says.

NIH, too, is optimistic. “We’re into a good rhythm,” says Deputy Director James Anderson, whose division of strategic initiatives oversees the NIH Chimpanzee Management Program. Not all chimps will make it to a sanctuary, he says, because some are too old or too frail to be moved. The agency recently created a working group to help figure out which animals would be better off staying where they are. “We’re committed to moving as many as we can,” Anderson says.

“I’m glad to hear Hercules and Leo are getting out of New Iberia,” says Steven Wise, founder and president of the Nonhuman Rights Project. He says he would have preferred they went where his group’s lawsuit intended them to go—Save the Chimps, a Fort Pierce, Florida–based nonprofit where more than 200 chimpanzees live on 12 islands on Florida’s east coast. Still, says Wise—whose organization is currently considering launching personhood lawsuits for chimps, elephants, and orcas in other states—“I’m very happy to see them leaving a research facility. I wish every primate could.”