Rescued chimps leave troubled California refuge for new home

Morning began for the last 10 chimpanzees stranded at the closed Wildlife Waystation in Angeles National Forest like so many others: passing the hours, spinning around, pushing toys across concrete floors and peering through the bars of their cages.

Three years after the sanctuary’s abrupt closure due to financial difficulties, the chimpanzees, taken in from biomedical research labs, were the only creatures left in the eerily quiet labyrinth of empty cages and pens at the 160-acre northern facility where Once more than 500 exotic animals lived within the city limits of Los Angeles.

But for these chimpanzees, who had never climbed a tree or galloped across grass, a big change was coming, and they knew it—at least from their high-pitched cries of “OO-OO-OO-AH!”

A male chimpanzee in a transport cage

Axil, a 29-year-old male chimpanzee, was recently lured into a transport cage at the closed Wildlife Waystation in Angeles National Forest.

(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

The scene unfolded as keepers lured eight of the chimpanzees into special shipping containers with monkey food biscuits. The pens were then loaded onto a truck and trailer specially equipped to transport them 1,600 miles to Chimp Haven in Keithville, La., a 500-acre facility that cares for over 300 chimpanzees, most of whom are from the research laboratories have been eliminated.

They arrived late Sunday – weary primate escapees clutching travel blankets adorned with pink hearts.

The other two chimpanzees at the Wildlife Waystation should be transported to Chimp Haven within a few weeks.

“This is a whole new beginning for these chimpanzees,” said Rana Smith, 58, chief executive officer at Chimp Haven. “You are in a better place.”

Life got interesting for Amber, 31; mousse, 37; Axel, 29; buster, 28; Connor, 29; December 29; Denise, 30; squid, 29; Tequila, 29, and mocha, 31.

People moving a chimpanzee in a metal cage with wheels

Jaime Panzo, left, and Silvio Santinelli help move Connor the chimp into a moving truck.

(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

Chimp Haven is a place where chimpanzees roam through forests and grasslands and are housed in indoor and outdoor enclosures that keep them warm when it’s cool outside.

“The other chimpanzees will teach these newcomers how to climb trees and not be afraid of natural substrate like grass,” said Raven Jackson, 41, Chimp Haven’s chief veterinarian. “It’s beautiful to watch them evolve into a semblance of their natural selves.”

The move marked the end of a turbulent saga that began when the shelter was founded in 1977 by the late animal rights activist Martine Colette to take in abused, abandoned and sick animals. Some of them carried diseases they had contracted through medical research projects.

Colette, who died in January, raised millions of dollars for her cause and boasted glamorous and well-connected supporters including former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and actors Laura Dern, Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum.

But behind the shelter’s 10-foot fences were signs of trouble shared by shelters that live and die on the donations of others.

Two women hug in Angeles National Forest

Emma Martin, left, and Kate Thompson comfort each other after the last chimp was loaded into a moving truck.

(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

A chimp drinking a squirt of Gatorade through the metal bars of a cage

Tequila, 29, enjoys a Gatorade in his transport cage.

(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

Over the years, it has been plagued by a seemingly endless series of disasters and legal troubles, including floods and wildfires. Drought; financial disputes between directors; and hundreds of violations of health, sanitation and other codes cited by local, state and federal agencies.

The final downward spiral followed extensive damage caused by the 2017 Creek fire and again during subsequent extreme flooding, which required insurmountable financial resources to meet current regulatory standards.

The facility relinquished its state permits in 2019, sparking an emergency collaboration between the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Kate Thompson, the last board member of the Wildlife Waystation; and the nonprofit North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance.

The department assumed sanctuary and responsibility for finding acceptable new homes for hundreds of animals, including baboons, tigers, alligators, wolves, owls and Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs, as well as 42 chimpanzees.

“We intervened to prevent a potential disaster,” recalled Ed Pert, a spokesman for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. “But we had no idea how difficult it would be to find a new home for the chimps.”

That’s because demand for sanctuaries skyrocketed after the use of chimpanzees in research ended in 2015. Additionally, potential enclosures for the agile and intelligent animals had to be large and strong enough to allow them to stay busy and occupied.

A chimpanzee in a transport cage is driven down a ramp into a cargo hold

Jaime Panzo, left, and others move a chimpanzee into a moving van.

(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

Meanwhile, the state agency paid about $100,000 a month to provide the chimpanzees with food, water, veterinary care, insurance and security.

The group also raised approximately $5 million from private donors to provide new housing for most of the chimpanzees at the Center for Great Apes in Florida, Primaly Primates Inc. in Texas, Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest in Washington, Save the Chimps in Florida and Chimp Haven to install .

However, two chimpanzees died at the Wildlife Waystation due to medical problems.

“We are trying to raise an additional approximately $500,000 to cover immediate care costs for the 10 chimpanzees going to Chimp Haven,” said Erika Fleury, program director for the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance. “Overall, it’s a miracle that we’re nearing the finish line.”

Hidden in a rugged gorge, the future of the property remains uncertain. At least one potential buyer has expressed an interest in converting it into a campground with resort-style services, officials said.

On a recent weekday, as they strolled among the empty cages, ruins and relics, board member Thompson and Anher Flores, 50, a caretaker at the facility for 33 years, reminisced about better days.

“We were surrounded by sights and sounds of howling wolves, cackling hyenas, roaring lions and howling chimpanzees,” said Thompson, 36, wiping tears. “That was the best lullaby ever.”

Flores made sure to comfort the chimpanzees with soothing words and fresh apples and oranges as they were loaded onto the truck.

A chimpanzee with fingers in the bars of a metal cage

Inky, a 29-year-old female chimpanzee.

(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

Among them was Inky, 29, who reached out of her shipping crate and held his hand as if to ask, “Will everything be okay? Do you know where we are going?”

“Don’t worry, Inky,” he said. “You’re going to a better place.” Rescued chimps leave troubled California refuge for new home

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