FORT PIERCE, Fla.-- After years of using chimpanzees for laboratory testing, a momentous step has been made that could make changes to the Save the Chimps sanctuary in Fort Pierce.
Save the Chimps has 266 chimpanzees, it is the largest sanctuary population in the world. Save for about twenty chimps who came from entertainment industries, the animals were all retired from laboratories.
Each of the chimps came from a different set of circumstances, with varied sizes of cages and degrees of social exposure.
Chimpanzee Miller had not lived with other chimps until he arrived at the sanctuary, having lived in a small cage. Lisa, an older chimp, was used to breed one baby after another, never raising them herself.
Some of the chimps were used for painful procedures. One chimp was given injections into his brain. Another had a healthy organ removed. Some were in cages and had not touched grass before arriving at Save the Chimps.
In the sanctuary, which is entirely run through private donations, the chimps are given a more natural environment in which to "retire" from their lives in laboratories.
"Very often they lived alone, so they didn't even have the comfort of a friend or companion," explained Jen Feuerstein, Director at the sanctuary.
Hundreds more chimps currently are still being used for research in laboratories across the country. The National Institute of Health is considering the retirement of hundreds of chimps being used for research.
"I've spent 15 years working with chimps and I've really hoped for this day to come," Feuerstein said.
If the sanctuary were to receive more retired chimps, the privately-funded sanctuary would need to expand.
"Unfortunately, most of our islands are full already, our social groups can't really accept many more chimpanzees," Feuerstein said.
The sanctuary is allowed to house up to 300 animals on the current property, but it would need to grow to house more chimps. The sanctuary could add a thirteenth island and additional land could be developed, but massive funding would be necessary. Every chimp costs $15,500 a year in care.
"The government is currently paying for the care of these chimpanzees in laboratories so our hope is that those funds would simply be shifted to sanctuary care," she said.
Currently, the decision is in the public comment process. A decision is expected in late March. Feuerstein is hopeful that one day all chimpanzees can retire.
"Really just the fulfillment of a dream, but there is still a lot of work ahead of us," she said.
If approved, more chimps could be moved to the Fort Pierce facility in the next three to five years.