My First Visit to Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest, Cle Elum, WA

Posted by April Nockleby, ALDF's Online Content Manager on March 20, 2009

A first for both of them, Joyce Tischler, ALDF’s founder and general
counsel, and Bruce Wagman, ALDF’s chief outside litigation counsel,
recently visited Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest (CSNW), a facility that provides lifetime quality care for formerly abused and exploited chimpanzees.

a special two-part series, read about Joyce’s and Bruce’s visits to
this exceptional sanctuary and their experiences with seven rescued
chimpanzees, the “Cle Elum Seven.”

My First visit to Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest, Cle Elum, WA

by Joyce Tischler, ALDF’s founder and general counsel

Leaving Cle Elum. Never Again
by Bruce Wagman, ALDF’s chief outside litigation counsel

My First Visit to Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest, Cle Elum, WA

I had the time of my life for a weekend in February – cooking and cleaning for seven wonderful chimpanzees (Jamie, Burrito, Annie, Missy, Negra, Jody and Foxie) at Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest (CSNW) and spending precious time watching them.

Joyce and JodySarah Baeckler, the primatologist/lawyer/extraordinary person who is Executive Director of CSNW, guided me through the weekend, along with the wonderful Deborah Wagman, who is a regular volunteer at CSNW. Sarah took some photos on Sunday, when we were outside with the chimps. It was cold in Cle Elum (about two hours East of Seattle) and snow was on the ground, so the chimps didn’t want to stay out for too long. Neither did I.

These seven chimpanzees were treated as inanimate objects before they came to CSNW from Buckshire Corporation (see CSNW website for more information about their past lives). I’ve read much about what is done to chimpanzees in research (as well as in entertainment) and how they are warehoused. Meeting individual chimps who have lived through the experience for decades and watching them up close makes it all the more real and rekindles my sense of outrage that so many other chimpanzees continue to be exploited and abused.

What follows are my impressions of the chimpanzees at Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest.  All I have is first impressions. Chimpanzees are so intelligent and complex that, in a mere two days, I could see only a slice of who they are. I tried to be as unobtrusive as I could be while in their living space. After all, it is their home and I was merely a visitor whom they did not invite.

BurritoBurrito was the first chimpanzee I focused on when I arrived at CSNW. I was standing at the kitchen window (which overlooks part of the chimps’ living space) and Burrito, the youngest member of the group and its only male, climbed up on the gate and swayed back and forth. His hair was piloerect (standing on end), which made him appear larger than he is. I thought he was an impressive, handsome fellow and I could tell that he was attentive to the presence of someone new. Burrito is a bit of a brat and he has a habit of causing drama with other members of the group. When mealtimes come around, Burrito can hardly contain himself.

NegraNegra is overweight and saggy; her stomach is wide and flabby, all of which makes her more likeable to me- we have that in common. Sarah told me that Negra was much heavier when she arrived at CSNW and the weight loss is a healthy change. I presume that finally being freed from her tiny 5x5x7 foot cage and having the space to move around, go up and down stairs and out of doors is helping Negra get the exercise she always needed. Plus, the addition of fruits and vegetables to their diet is helping to shape up the old girl. However, Negra seems to spend most of her time sitting quietly, somewhat Buddha-like and observing everyone and everything around her. Often, she drapes a blanket over her head.

Negra is the oldest of the group, at 36. She was captured from the wild as an infant and has spent most of her 36 years in Hepatitis research and as a breeder in biomedical research labs. Sarah told me that, for two years, Negra was kept in an isolation unit–no contact with other chimps. Chimpanzees are so highly social; I can only wonder what two years without contact or interaction with her own kind did to Negra.

I first focused on Negra while she was eating in the dining area. She sat on top of a large black metal lazy susan that is built into the door and she piled her food in front of her.  Deborah was the server and when Negra wanted to get Deb’s attention, she would bang her fist on the door and then clap once. I was impressed. Negra didn’t clap repeatedly or jump up and down as Burrito did, just one calm, confident clap of the hands, as if to say, “waitress, come at once.”  I was reminded of Dame Judith Dench, when she played Elizabeth I, sitting quite still and commanding everyone around her with a stern, clear voice and few words.

Negra refused to come to the meal rooms for breakfast on Sunday morning, so didn’t get her breakfast. When she realized that she couldn’t get into the dining area, she seemed a bit miffed. Awhile later, I was at the kitchen sink washing fruit and saw her upstairs with a blanket covering her head.  I nodded to her to say “hi,” but she refused to nod back, brushing me off with the back of her hand. A minute later, I tried to nod to her again, but again, she brushed me off. Perhaps, Negra, channeling her “Queen Elizabeth” was saying, “we are not amused.” At Sunday lunch, Deb was serving greens and this time, Negra came to the meal rooms, positioning herself again on top of the lazy susan. She seemed particularly pleased with the lunch menu: she hoarded her leafy greens in a pile inside her crossed legs, taking as many as Deb would give her and then sat, munching and making happy noises, as Deb tells me chimps do when they are enjoying a meal. The next time I nodded at Negra, she nodded back at me.

JamieJamie is formidable. As soon as I arrived, she began to display and try to intimidate me.  I was warned that she likes to go over to a faucet, get a large quantity of water in her mouth and spit it at the humans, so I was prepared for that and didn’t react… well, most of the time. It was actually sort of fun, even when she got me in the ear. When she picked up some poop, I was less enthusiastic about being the recipient of such an honor and walked to the kitchen quickly, yet nonchalantly, managing to miss being hit.

Sarah explained that Jamie is showing that she’s dominant. She also said that Jamie understands the rules, both human and chimp and exploits them well. Everyone at CSNW agrees that Jamie is extremely intelligent. I could see that in her face, the way her eyes dart back and forth with such intensity, taking in everything. I wonder if she displayed that “in your face” approach during the 31 years before she arrived at CSNW and if she did, how well or poorly it served her…  

At one point, Jamie was pointing at my shoes and I didn’t pick up on it until Sarah told me that Jamie is particularly fond of shoes and wanted me to show mine to her. I obliged, sticking each foot out and turning it around so she could see the shoes from various angles. Note to self: send Jamie some books that have pictures of shoes.

I like to imagine that if Jamie had been born and lived in the wild, she could have been a powerful and innovative leader of her chimpanzee community. When we served dinner on Sunday, we set out the bowls of stir fried vegetables, so that the chimps could forage. I saw then what a bully Jamie can be–she caused a ruckus and several of the chimps were too afraid to come in to eat. Then, Jamie sat on the table and used her spoon to pick through one bowl, as six other bowls lay beneath the table. She had hoarded seven bowls of dinner for herself, more than she could possibly eat. As she delicately picked through several bowls with her large black fingers, finding her favorite items and smacking her lips as she tasted each one, I felt a sense of anger at her bullying tactics and yet, at the same time, admiration for her strength and chutzpah. Jamie is some piece of work!

FoxieFoxie is easy to pick out because she is generally carrying at least one troll doll, often more than that. Those odd looking dolls, with their bright orange or purple “hair” have helped Foxie to come out of her shell after years of neglect and isolation in the lab. Foxie gave birth to five babies, only to have them all taken away from her within hours or days of their births. I saw her put one of the troll dolls on her back, as she would have done with a real chimpanzee baby. Watching Foxie with her troll dolls was bittersweet. I couldn’t help but wonder if she is nursing the babies she was never allowed to raise. It was a reminder that chimpanzees in captivity have been stripped of everything that was their birthright: their family groups, their natural habitat and lifestyle, including the rearing of their young. CSNW is a wonderful sanctuary, committed to restoring the dignity of the chimps in its care, but even the best of sanctuaries acknowledges that chimpanzees in America are caught in limbo. They cannot go back to their natural environment in Africa as they lack the survival skills they would need, and in our human world, they are indeed, strangers in a strange land.  

JodyOne of the most moving experiences for me at CSNW was watching Foxie and Jody playing with each other. These chimps bear the psychological scars of decades of isolation and exploitation in the lab. Yet, they are learning or relearning more normal chimp behaviors. Jody and Foxie were laying next to each other on the floor, each clutching part of a scarf In her teeth and gently tickling each other, their arms intertwined. And, we could hear the soft sound of chimpanzee laughter. Sarah said that she had not heard Jody laugh that much ever and it was a good sign that Jody is beginning to let down her guard.

Annie and MissyMissy and Annie spend most of their time together and did not come out very much while I was there. I did get to see Missy leading a game of “chase me” when the chimps went to the outdoor playground. She came out with a large blue/red and white plaid blanket and pulled Jamie into the game. It was wonderful to watch them romping around the playground, brachiating, climbing up and down the fencing and obviously enjoying themselves.

My days at CSNW included washing and drying fruits and vegetables, cooking, cleaning and washing toys and blankets for the chimps. I was more than happy to do so. On Sunday afternoon, before I left to go home, I spent close to 1 1/2 hours stuffing dried cranberries into 14 little wooden boards with holes drilled into them. I knew that these boards would be given to the chimps as an enrichment toy, so that they could push out the cranberries and eat them. Now that I am back home, I check the CSNW website blog and see pictures of the chimps and it brings me right back to the time I spent there. The March 3 blog shows Negra with a blanket over her head, Foxie examining her troll dolls and Jamie surrounded by 9 of the 14 cranberry boards that I had so carefully stuffed. From the photo, I can see how focused she was on extracting those cranberries. Oh Jamie; of course!

All images and video courtesy of Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest.

One thought on “My First Visit to Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest, Cle Elum, WA

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