FORT PIERCE, Fla. - Nine chimpanzees have made their trip as part of the "great chimp migration," to their new home in Fort Pierce.
They rode in a custom-made trailer, each fed French fries, looking out their own window at the first view of their new home.
Anticipation built in the air as the newest residents rolled into the Chimps Animal Sanctuary.
The chimpanzees have come from a former biomedical research lab in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
"It was cement blocks, the one Building 300 was called 'the dungeon' and it was one cement block after another, seven by seven by five," said Jocelyn Bezner, a veterinarian at the sanctuary.
The animals are grouped into what caregivers call a "family." They are comfortable and knew each other before arrival at the facility.
"It's okay, sweetheart, you're home," coaxed Director of Communications Triana Romero. "Hello Spencer, I can see your eyes, you are handsome."
Chimpanzees have 98.7 percent of the same DNA makeup as humans. They are curious and emotional. They laugh when they're happy and grieve when they are sad.
"They are emotional and funny and angry and manipulative and cute and every single one has a different personality and you fall in love with every single one. It's not because they are human, it's because they are chimps and they have these personalities that you get to know," explained Bezner.
In individual cages from the trailer, each of the chimps was released into a building, one by one, while the others living at the sanctuary came to watch. Each chimp had a different reaction to the new environment and the opportunity to enter a larger room.
Venus burst in, immediately going up the wall and across a bridge to another room.
"Wow, she is curious," said Romero.
Noah took his time, sitting at the edge of his cage for a long pause, looking around, before dancing across the room.
Tapioca and Ursula are best friends, according to caregivers, and the two painted together for an enrichment activity. As they entered the new environment, Tapioca coaxed Ursula into the room, greeting her on the bridge, before they went across together.
"And a lot of times you will see them hug and they get really excited," said Romero.
The chimps will have some time to adjust to their new lifestyle, and then the animals who spent their lifetimes on cement will take their first steps onto the grassy earth.
"They still haven't seen grass so this is really exciting when they get here," explained Romero.
Each chimp will take to the new environment in his or her own time, looking out over the grass and large open island space before going forward.
"Sometimes they do that for a day, sometimes we have some that did it for two years and then suddenly so and so is out on the island and what happened that day that made them decide it was okay, we don't know," said Bezner.
Each chimp costs $15,000 to care for annually, and they have a life expectancy of about 50 or 60 years. The sanctuary says some people will choose to sponsor a chimp for a year or a short time.
Watching Noah make his way into his new home, Romero held back tears, thinking of his sponsor. "I can't wait to tell her you are here," she said.
In December, the final ten chimpanzees will make their way from New Mexico to Florida.
"It's humans that got them in this situation and we have a responsibility to care for them," Romero said.
For more information, visit www.savethechimps.org.
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