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“Save the Chimps” Sanctuary Builds a Home for Traumatized Apes

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Chimpanzee traumaHis name is Clay. He’s a happy, creative 24-year-old male who prefers to live in solitude. Although most of the time he is peaceful, he has been known to become aggressive and violent in a manner that can terrify the people who love him.

If Clay were human, he would probably have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But Clay is a chimpanzee, a survivor of years of invasive medical experiments, and a resident of the Save the Chimps sanctuary in Fort Pierce, Fla.

“Clay’s a fabulous guy,” says Sanctuary Director Jen Feuerstein. “He’s really engaging with humans and loves to play. But he does not tolerate other chimpanzees at all. He gets very aggressive around them.” Several attempts have been made to introduce him to other chimps, but none have been successful. “He lives on his own and it’s going to stay that way.”

To help Clay and chimpanzees like him, Save the Chimps is converting an old building on its 60-hectare sanctuary into a “special needs” facility that will house traumatized animals and others with medical conditions that prevent them from being around others of their species. The project has already raised around $230,000 of its $835,000 construction budget, says Feuerstein, which has enabled the organization to renovate the interior and move in its first few residents. The remainder will be used to fund outdoor yards and playgrounds so the apes living in the building have access to nature and fresh air.

“Right now, I’ve got about eight chimps that we consider ‘special needs,’” Feuerstein says. “Hopefully the building will be able to accommodate about a dozen.”

Several studies—for example, see research published in a 2008 issue of the Journal of Trauma & Dissociation and in a June 16, 2011, issue of PLoS One—have shown how traumatized chimpanzees can suffer from PTSD, especially after living in captivity. “We see all sorts of behaviors that I would characterize as PTSD,” Feuerstein says. “We have chimps that self-mutilate or who scream for no apparent reason. We’ve had chimps that wouldn’t go outside or chimps that rock back and forth—a lot of stress-related behaviors like that. I’m usually surprised that I don’t see more of it.”

Clay at Save the ChimpsMany chimps suffering from emotional trauma can ultimately be integrated back into groups and recover after what Feuerstein characterizes as a “challenging adjustment.” But a small number, such as Clay—who was separated from his mother 10 hours after his birth and grew up apart from all other chimpanzees—cannot be integrated and end up living on their own. “But one thing Clay has is a very positive attitude,” she says. “He’s friendly and loves to play. He doesn’t have any other stress behaviors or abnormal behaviors.”

The revamped building will also house chimps with medical problems such heart conditions and epilepsy. “If a chimp has a seizure, other chimps will be afraid and hit them, jump on them or drag them around,” Feuerstein says. Epileptic chimps are treated with the same drugs that humans receive, but success rates vary. The building will also serve as a potential home for chimps who become ill, develop heart troubles or who get kicked out of their social groups on one of the sanctuary’s 12 1.2-hectare islands for some reason.

Feuerstein says that chimps in captivity suffer from a variety of health problems, including heart conditions, kidney disease, liver disease and diabetes, but the causes of these conditions—especially for the chimps at the sanctuary—remain unclear. “We don’t know how much of this was from the research they endured because we don’t have a record of what they went through.”

The way the chimps were bred could also be a factor in their health. All of the apes at the Save the Chimps facility are common chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), but they are likely crossbreeds of different subspecies because breeding at medical-testing facilities was “indiscriminate,” Feuerstein says.

Despite their history of trauma and invasive medical experiments, Feuerstein says, most of the 266 chimps at their sanctuary are amazingly well-adjusted and forgiving to humans. “They’re able to separate who treats them well and who doesn’t. They don’t hold a grudge.”

Photos of Clay courtesy of Save the Chimps

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Laird Wilcox 3:19 am 11/8/2011

    Oh, great! We have people killing each other all over the world and somebody has built a sanctuary for traumatized monkeys. Any thought to getting priorities straight in this world?

    Haven’t they seen that ad on TV begging money for that little girl walking barefoot among puddles in some third world country? Maybe she’d like to live in a sanctuary somewhere, even with monkeys.

    This is anthropomorphized liberalism at its most extreme. Not only are the monkeys given human feelings and traits, but they’re elevated to the status of human beings in terms of resource allocation. Someone is going without food because of this kind of thing. How wonderful!

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  2. 2. JaHeb 9:54 am 11/8/2011

    Laird, I’m glad to know you are so compassionate to the poor and anti-violence (two admirable liberal traits), and I assume that a portion of your earnings goes to food banks that help to feed the hungry or help refugees of war. However, I must correct some inaccuracies in your post. First, chimps are apes, not monkeys. Second, monkeys and apes (and dogs and birds) do share common emotions with humans. We are not unique in being able to experience suffering, joy, pain, trauma, etc. Third, other species are not even close to being elevated to the status of humans with regards to resource allocation. This is an outrageous belief with no facts to back it up. No one is going without food as a direct result of of the small amount of money that is donated to chimps, dogs, or other animals. In the US, causes related to the environment and animals receive just 2% of all charitable giving. More than twice that goes to the arts (which I consider to also be worthy of support–I’m just pointing out that animals and nature are hardly stealing resources.) The largest piece of the philanthropic pie–35%–goes to religion. You might ask your local religious institutions what portion of all the money they raise goes to feed the hungry or help victims of war and violence.

    The chimps exist because the US government funded their breeding and research, and then abandonded them. It might surprise you to learn that no sanctuary *wants* to exist. They all want to close their doors someday when no more chimps (or monkeys, or horses, or elephants) are in need of rescue. So just like you, they want not to exist. I urge you to support policies and legislation that will eliminate the sources of all these animals–biomedical research, the pet trade, animal farming, entertainment (like circuses and Hollywood trainers), zoos–namely any industry that profits from the use of captive animals. Then that measly portion of the 2% of giving for environmental/animal causes that actually goes to the direct care of sanctuary animals will be freed up to save the world.

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  3. 3. dawnforsythe 1:26 pm 11/8/2011

    Chimpanzees have paid their dues. They have entertained us after being subjected to brutal training methods. They have lived in human homes as pets after being torn from their mother’s arms. They have shilled for corporations by being forced to play the “zany monkeys” for TV ads. They have been caged subjects for biomedical research that can be conducted with other models. They have been — and continue to be — subject to the whims of people who either don’t know better or who don’t care.

    The very least that we can do, as compassionate human beings, is give them the respect, the care, and the lives they deserve. Save the Chimps and the other great ape sanctuaries are doing the hard work on behalf all of us. These sanctuaries deserve our thanks and our practical support.

    I have to wonder at people who scorn compassion, on any level.

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  4. 4. evolved 3:01 pm 11/8/2011

    Laird, Only a douche could read this article and have a problem with rehab for used and abused chimpanzees like Clay… evolve already or look into an antipsychotic.

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  5. 5. lissabets 3:17 pm 11/8/2011

    Thank you, JaHeb for your thorough and informative reply. Let us not forget that we share 95% of our DNA with chimpanzees. There’s no justifiable cause to use anthropomorphization as an excuse for showing human compassion to our closest animal relatives.

    If you object to famine in underdeveloped countries, support organizations such as The Hunger Project ( or Put your money where your mouth is. But don’t criticize those individuals who chose to put their resources – vocal or otherwise – into funding projects for the ethical treatment of animals. Ethical is ethical for all living things.

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  6. 6. lmsajdak 3:18 am 11/9/2011

    Thank you JaHeb, dawnforsythe, evolved and lissabets for such great posts! It’s unfortunate that there are such ignorant people in the world like our first commenter, who need to take a beatiful story and a very great organization and turn it into something ugly. Thank God for people like yourselves (and myself) who believe that these innocent animals (all animals)have gone through enough suffering at the hands of humans and deserve the dignity and respect and sanctuary that they are finally receiving!

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