I spent some time watching Negra this morning.
I had just opened the hydraulic door that allows the chimpanzees to access Young’s Hill, so the seven chimps were all free to forage and roam across their spacious outdoor habitat for the rest of the day. Neggie, of course, had other plans.
The Queen, pictured above, was lounging on the upper level of the Greenhouse- the optimal location for a morning nap. As she basked on her side in the summer breeze, her lackadaisical bliss reminded me of a sea lion hauled out on a busy fishing pier, unconcerned with the activity going on around her. She had a plaid blanket draped over her shoulders and an assortment of fleece items piled around her legs. Her chin rested on her wrist, giving her the appearance of being deep in thought. She was the definition of comfort. Negra looked glorious.
Negra’s life wasn’t always like this. Neggie was likely captured in the wild as an infant in 1973, making her approximately 46 years old. We often think of her as the most senior of the CSNW residents, but the five other females are also well into their fifth decade of life. Even Burrito, born in the early 1980s, is well past the median life expectancy for captive male chimpanzees and has even exceeded the average life span for males in one of the healthiest wild communities studied by primatologists. According to what we know about chimpanzee life history, this leads us to classify all of our residents as geriatric individuals. We are prepared to manage their health and provide daily care for them accordingly, but it also shapes our expectations for the future of our sanctuary’s residents.
At larger chimpanzee sanctuaries, the populations are typically composed of individuals who vary greatly in age and background. Chimp Haven, a chimpanzee sanctuary in Keithville, Louisiana, just announced the passing of their oldest resident, Sarah Anne. Sarah Anne lived to be almost 60 years old, but didn’t retire to Chimp Haven until 2006 when she was already in her late-40s. As evidenced by the vivid descriptions and heartwarming stories shared by the Chimp Haven staff, Sarah Anne was undoubtedly an amazing individual who made the most of her time in sanctuary.
After reading about the famous Sarah Anne, I see many parallels between her life and Negra’s. Both were taken from the wild and brought to the United States as infants, presumably orphaned. Both were exploited for decades in order to advance scientific investigations. Both were shuffled from one location to another when they were no longer needed for research. Eventually, both found peaceful homes at reputable sanctuaries where they could spend their days doing their favorite things. Both became known for their extravagant blanket nests, and both became known as “queens” for their strong will and dignified demeanor. Remarkably, both overcame their pasts to become cornerstones of their social groups.
Most importantly, their stories demonstrate how chimpanzees who have already endured long and difficult lives can still grow and thrive once retired to sanctuary.
Last year, just three years after the National Institutes of Health (NIH) ended biomedical research on chimpanzees, the number of chimpanzees living in sanctuary eclipsed the amount still living in laboratories. Concurrently, there was an exhaustive debate regarding which chimpanzees should be considered candidates for relocation to sanctuary. The discussion focused on older chimpanzees, particularly those with chronic health conditions. After receiving comments from the public and input from experts, the NIH eventually concluded that all but the frailest chimpanzees should be given an opportunity to experience sanctuary, regardless of age and despite manageable health conditions.
As sanctuary caregivers around the country can testify, life does not end at retirement for chimpanzees any more than it does for humans. In Negra’s case, she has already had more than a lifetime’s share of traumatic experiences and solitary confinement. It’s only fitting that she can now live each day to the fullest, whether that includes scarfing down heads of lettuce, playing with the other chimps, participating in positive reinforcement training, or trekking up the hill to pick wild greens.
Every day, chimpanzees just like Negra and Sarah Anne get to enjoy a peaceful and enriched retirement. As many in the primate sanctuary community are taking time to fondly remember Sarah Anne and reflect on her golden years, we can also use this moment to celebrate the unique opportunities that sanctuary can give to chimpanzees of all ages.