PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - There's Chimp-entine's Day, Chimp-dependence Day and Chimp O'Ween. And then there's Chimpmas.
Yes, that's right. Even some chimpanzees get to experience a little Christmas, rather, Chimpmas cheer.
Each year staff members at the Save the Chimps sanctuary throw holiday parties for the 216 rescued chimps that reside at the 150-acre preserve west of Fort Pierce.
The chimps, most of them former subjects of biomedical research, live in family groups on 12 islands surrounded by moats of water. Each island is about 3 acres and connects to a shelter, which houses the animals. But they're free to roam about the islands whenever they please. The sanctuary was founded by the late Dr. Carole Noon.
On Wednesday, the sanctuary held the first of 12 Chimpmas parties for a group of 22 chimps living on "Tanya's Island." Each island gets its own party on different days.
Wednesday's event sort of resembled a door buster scene on Black Friday, but on a much tamer scale.
As staff members set up and decorated a Christmas tree and scattered the island with wrapped presents and other goodies, some anxious chimps banged on doors and hooted inside the shelter. They couldn't see what was happening because sheets covered the windows so as not to spoil the surprise.
"They know something is up because we covered the windows," Sanctuary Communications Director Triana Romero said.
As the doors lifted, out burst the excited chimps onto the island where they scooped up presents stuffed with candy canes, lollipops, toys, powdered doughnuts, popcorn and apples.
Having a party thrown in their honor is a big deal for the chimps, many of which spent 30 and 40 years in research labs while living in small, concrete, barren cages, never being able to touch grass or interact with other chimps.
"They didn't have a lot of toys or other items to entertain them, and their minds are so active all the time, and they're so intelligent," Sanctuary Director Jen Feuerstein said. "They get really bored, and it can literally drive them crazy. So, it's really important to us to give them enriched lives and that means things for them to search for on the island, objects for them to manipulate, toys, and just any sort of variety is really important to chimps. The parties are a great way for them to have variety in their lives."
Feuerstein said the sanctuary is always in need of donations, including streamers, other paper decorations and food items for chimp holiday parties.
"When they see streamers go up, they know that there's a party coming, so they get pretty enthused about that," Feuerstein said.
A majority of the chimps come from the now-shuttered Coulston Foundation biomedical research lab in Alamogordo, N.M., which Save the Chimps renovated and took over in 2002 after the lab lost its funding because of major animal welfare violations.
There are 56 chimps left at the facility in New Mexico, and the goal is to shut it down and relocate the remaining chimps to Fort Pierce by July of next year, Romero said.
It costs $25,000 to relocate a group of 10 chimps.
Save the Chimps supporters Lee and Danielle Wilson of Santa Fe, N.M., sponsored a migration of 10 chimps to Fort Pierce in early November.
The couple was in Florida this week and stopped by the sanctuary Wednesday to take part in the Chimpmas party. The Wilsons have been supporters of the sanctuary for 10 years.
"These are magnificent animals," Danielle Wilson said. "It's a privilege to be able to do this. Part of the agony of these animals is they sat in these tiny cages for decades with nothing to do or no mental stimulation. So, it's very emotional to see this."
The process to relocate the chimps has taken several years, mainly because of the cost to relocate them, plus the lengthy time it takes to socialize the chimps in family groups.
A significant portion of the sanctuary's $4.5 million budget comes from the Arcus Foundation, an organization that funds the conservation of great apes and has offices in Kalamazoo, Mich.; New York City and the United Kingdom. The foundation will match every dollar, up to $1 million, donated to Save the Chimps through April 30.
"We're almost halfway there," Romero said, adding that the organization is in need of sponsorships to relocate the remaining chimps in New Mexico.
For more information about Save the Chimps, including ways to donate to the relocation project, call 772-429-0403
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