Through metal bars, I make fleeting eye contact with a chimp crouching in a large, airy greenhouse. We don’t lock eyes often: She’s more interested in checking out my Doc Martens than considering why a rare stranger has stopped by. The chimp — Jamie — watches with rapt attention as I turn the beat-up boots, then begin the task of unlacing and lacing them for her entertainment. When I finish this process on both boots, she looks up at me, lips parted and eyes gleaming, and gives a slight nod. Again.
Jamie is one of 10 chimpanzees who live at Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest (CSNW), a bucolic 90-acre slice of land nestled in Cle Elum’s Cascade mountains. Three of the chimps are new, having arrived at the sanctuary late in the summer of 2019. The other seven have been there since 2008, before which they lived at a private biomedical facility in Pennsylvania. The group was kept for years in a windowless basement and rented out to test hepatitis vaccines and more.
“We don’t know everything that they were used for, because some things were considered proprietary, so we don’t have the records,” said Diana Goodrich, who co-directs the sanctuary with her husband, J.B. Mulcahy, both of whom have been working with chimpanzees since 1998.
“I think I always have been interested in nonhuman great apes,” Goodrich said. “Apparently as a kid, I was obsessed with this book about Koko the gorilla, and in college I had photos of chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas taped to my wall.”
Goodrich, blond and slight, comes alive when interacting with the 10 chimps; like them, she has found her natural habitat at the sanctuary. She said that after college, once she learned about the plight of chimpanzees and their treatment in captivity, she knew she wanted to work with them.
“Historically, it all started with the space program in the ’60s,” Goodrich explained. As humans’ closest relatives — we share about 99 percent of our DNA — chimps were sent into orbit to test the safety of space travel; when the space race was over, the captive chimps were used by laboratories for infectious disease research, including aggressive but unsuccessful attempts at an HIV vaccine.
The chimps at CSNW are all in their 30s and 40s — retirement age, in chimp years — and are a product of this era.
In 1996, 1,500 apes still lived in research labs, despite decades of research revealing them to be emotional and highly intelligent creatures. A law was passed four years later to create the first national chimpanzee sanctuary, Chimp Haven in Keithville, Louisiana, where federally funded chimps — about half of them — would go to live in a setting designed around their needs.
Privately funded sanctuaries like CSNW, which was founded by Keith LaChapelle in 2003 after he read an article about captive chimps in Discover magazine, sprung up around the same time to make homes for as many of the remaining half as possible. CSNW is perhaps the most unlikely of the group: Of the six accredited sanctuaries in the country, it is located the farthest north — a long way from the tropical forests the chimps once called home.
Its location is no mistake, though: LaChapelle bought the farm near Cle Elum in 2003 with a $200,000 severance check from his previous job, not only because the land was affordable, but because of its proximity to Central Washington University (CWU) in nearby Ellensburg.
“There’s a really great primatology program there — it’s very unique in the world, actually,” Goodrich said. She herself earned her master’s there, as did Mulcahy, working with five chimps who had been taught sign language.
LaChapelle moved his family to the farm and began building infrastructure to house chimps. Five years later, he and Mulcahy drove seven chimps across the country to their new home, shortly after which LaChapelle stepped down from management.
Since then, under Goodrich’s and Mulcahy’s co-direction, the sanctuary has grown from 26 to 90 acres: purchases funded by approximately 1,600 private donors and a handful of grants. The most recent expansion — which includes the addition of a veterinary clinic and separate spaces where new chimps can get acclimated — comes just three years after the National Institutes of Health announced that it will no longer support biomedical research on chimps, effectively ending the practice in the U.S. in late 2015.
For the first time now, more chimps live in sanctuaries than laboratories, with only a few hundred remaining in private facilities. It is Goodrich’s hope that she will see them all placed in sanctuaries — and that CSNW’s recent expansion efforts will allow the sanctuary to welcome in as many as it can manage.
When I first approach the building that houses the chimps’ play areas and connects to their two acres of outdoor space, Goodrich smiles down at my boots.
“Jamie is really going to love those,” she said. “I bet she’s going to want to go on a walk with you.”
The daily walks with a lucky boot-wearer — Jamie on the inside perimeter of the double electric fences enclosing their outdoor space, the human and the boots on the outside — is just one of Jamie’s rituals that echo her years as a young chimp raised by a human trainer. This socialization led to a fascination with human things, like boots — and books about boots — that decades later remains a part of her personality.
Burrito, 36, the youngest of the original seven and the only male among them, is similarly drawn to humans: He spent the first few years of his life as a pet, which was not an uncommon practice during the era of chimp research.
“There were so many chimps in the U.S., and they were also in people’s homes, because they were so cute,” Goodrich explained. “But once they get to be about 4 years old, they’re as strong as human adults, so people didn’t keep them around for too long.”
At that point, pet chimps were sold by their owners to labs, which would sometimes promise that they would be used only for breeding.
“That generally wasn’t true,” Goodrich said, shaking her head. Two chimps she used to work with at a sanctuary in Canada grew up in a human home and even had their teeth removed so they couldn’t bite. Their owner walked them into the lab holding their hands when he sold them, she said. They went on to be used in aggressive HIV research.
Though only a few of the chimps at CSNW grew up with close human contact and take a special interest in the goings-on of their human caretakers, they all have distinct personalities and roles that they play within the complex echelons of their group.
“Chimps definitely have a hierarchy,” Goodrich said. “It’s a lot more fluid than some other animal species: It really depends on the context of the group — who is at the top and who isn’t.”
In an aggressive context, Jamie is the alpha: She’s very bossy and believes that she should be in charge of everyone, including the humans, Goodrich said. But in calmer times, Jody serves as the kind of hub of the social group — the chimp that the others pay attention to most.
Negra, who, as the elder of the group, is approaching 50, is more of a loner, with a regal and controlled air about her. Burrito is rambunctious like a teenager. Annie and Missy are best friends, attached at the hip: They always build their nests made of blankets touching one another — the chimp equivalent of bunk beds, Goodrich joked.
“This is the longest I’ve worked with a group of chimps. It’s been amazingly rewarding,” she said. The love she feels for them is apparent in the way she describes their personalities, the relationship between human and chimps landing somewhere between a parent and her unruly children and a group of old, familiar friends.
But despite the close bonds she feels to the chimps, Goodrich knows that there are boundaries that have to be respected. She very rarely shares a space with them, and even a finger stuck through the bars can end poorly.
“We have a lot of colleagues missing fingers because they let their guard down,” she said. “Chimps run the whole gamut of human behavior: They can be really sweet and compassionate, but they can also be really violent. We respect their wild nature.”
And at the end of the day, Goodrich said, it’s their relationships with one another that matter most.
“They understand each other better,” she says as we walk along the outer perimeter of the electric fence with Jamie, whose eyes are fixated on my feet. “They have to change the way they interact when they’re with humans. I’m fine with having limited contact: My emotional connection with them is just about being in their presence.”
Running a chimpanzee sanctuary has a certain romantic air about it, but, of course, the reality of the day-to-day is messier. A large part of each day — four to five hours — is spent cleaning up after the chimps. Meals are constantly being prepared, and laundry is constantly being done. CSNW depends on interns from Central Washington University for help with these processes — another reason the proximity of the university is an asset.
“It’s a huge benefit to have the interns here,” Goodrich said. “They help us clean, and in return, they get hands-on experience and observation of primates.”
Currently, the sanctuary relies on 10 to 12 interns at a time, with about 15 volunteers from the community — some commuting from Seattle or farther for their monthly shifts.
As the sanctuary continues to grow, Goodrich said that they’ll play by ear whether they need additional support. The three new chimps are still in the process of being integrated with the rest of the group, and if the process goes smoothly, Goodrich hopes that they can make a home for about 15 more chimps in the next five years. CSNW also is looking into providing sanctuary for old world monkeys — primarily macaques — from the research and pet industries.
In other words, big changes are on the horizon. For a landscape that has long looked about the same, major transformations are already underway.
For now, though, the 10 chimpanzees have the place to themselves, spending their days building nests with blankets, grooming one another, and digging peanut butter out of PVC pipes. Jamie climbs up into the rafters to get someone’s attention, hoping to be shown a boot or handed a book through the bars. Burrito stomps his feet and laughs breathily, searching for a playmate before deciding he’d rather pursue a snack.
And Negra, who was captured in Africa almost 50 years ago, wakes from a long nap and slowly makes her way outside — a rare venture for her nowadays. In the spring, she makes the trip just to get ahold of some grass to eat. She sits alone for a little while, picking at the ground, chewing, and watching passively as Missy takes off running joyfully across the field.
Grandmother-like and still, Negra seems peaceful seated in the grass by herself. The sun is not yet too hot, and the promise of lunch hangs in the air. With what almost looks like a smile, she turns her graying face up to the sky.
Then she stands, turns, and retires to the greenhouse: this manmade structure she has learned to call home.