Chimpanzees in Louisiana?

When I first heard of Chimp Haven, I was more than surprised. This chimpanzee sanctuary is the largest in the world and is located in Louisiana, a state known for very strict wild animal laws. I love primates. My travels have taken me to Madagascar to see lemurs in the wild, Malaysia to visit orangutans, and I even have tracked silver backed gorillas in The Congo, when it was still Zaire. I had visited a chimpanzee sanctuary in Kenya a few years ago that has over 30 rescued animals. Chimp Haven has nearly 300. In the near future that number could grow to 500.

The entrance to Chimp Haven- Bill Wiatrak

So what are 300 chimpanzees doing in Louisiana? The center is a rehabilitation center rather than a zoo. Chimps have been used for decades for medical experiments deemed too dangerous for humans. In 2015 landmark legislation was passed that halted invasive research on chimps, so all the research animals collectively got a hall pass. So, what do you do with a chimp who’s endured all kinds of injections of terrible diseases? Chimp Haven gives them another chance at life.

Sorter for chimpanzee medication- Bill Wiatrak

The center is only open 4 days a year for the general public. Entrance tickets are only $10. The rest of the year, the apes are cared for and given activities to keep them entertained including painting. A new staff member has 90 days to learn the names and faces of their residents and their special needs. Take their medication for example. Not only does each chimp require medication for their particular ailments, but all the females are on birth control as well. Chimp Haven’s goal is to let these animals live out the rest of their days happy, not to bring new ones into the world.

Behind the scenes tour- Bill Wiatrak

As you might imagine, the chimps aren’t all in the same mindset. Some prefer to be inside 4 walls than face the fear of outside, a place they never were exposed to when they were lab animals. That’s where the backlot tour comes in. Chimp Haven has a few “hayride” type carts to transport visitors to the back of the property to see the new area (under construction) and some of the buildings and cages where some of the chimps are kept. I saw one of the keepers administering a shot to one of the residents. She just had to point to her arm and the chimpanzee knew what to do and held her arm up for the injection. Some of them can communicate with a type of sign language.

Chimpanzee getting food from simulated termite mound- Jennie Timar

Bob Barker and a few other celebrities have donated to Chimp Haven to help with new construction. The government pays almost 75% of the operating expenses, but new construction and the additional 25% operation funds come entirely from donations. That’s the reason for the Chimpanzee Discovery Days. They give visitors a chance to see what the park is all about, ask questions and then adopt a chimp if they’d like. Chimpanzees are expensive to keep, so fund raising is a constant need for the sanctuary. There are 200 more chimpanzees in limbo waiting for their chance to move to Chimp Haven.

The sanctuary is about a 30 minute drive southwest from Shreveport. Once you arrive, you can follow the trail around the “moat” to view the animals. Chimps are about 5 times stronger than humans, but they can’t swim because of their muscle mass. The water acts as a barrier to keep chimps and humans apart, but allows visitors to watch and take photos of the simians on the other side. To put it simply, you’re not going to get up close and personal with the chimps. Even the employees aren’t allowed to touch them. However, you can watch them swinging, playing and climbing up trees that the staff has loaded with bananas. It’s unlikely you’ll ever see this many chimps gathered together in one place.

Chimp art- Jennie Timar

There’s small stations where you can interact with the staff and ask them your burning questions about the reserve. There’s displays to highlight the paintings created by the more artistic chimps. Henry, the famous chimpanzee that was rescued from a rusty cage in a garage in Channelview had some of his masterpieces on display. Another worker had an analog bean counter of sorts that allows visitors to select a knob that corresponds with the last activity they saw a chimp doing. They then turn it until a ball is dropped into a clear slot. At the end of the day a bar graph is created by the dropped balls showing how the primates spend their time. One of the employees was loading raisins into little holes in a block to make eating them a little more interesting for the residents.

Adopt a Chimp room- Bill Wiatrak

The adopt a chimp station is set up with pictures of some of the chimps and information about how you can help the project. I assumed the animals might look exactly the same, but surprisingly enough, they all have unique facial features and different “haircuts”. Chimpanzees can live to be over 60 years old and there’s a few residents well over the 50 mark. Age, origin, sex and past experiences all dictate which group a recently arrived chimp will best fit into. The playing area is divided into sections that separate chimps that don’t play well together.

There are 3 Chimp Discovery Days left this year: April 16, October 19 and November 16. The center is only open from 9 am-noon. It’s about a 4 1/2 hour drive from Houston, so you could combine it with an overnight stay or casino trip to Shreveport. Nacogdoches, the oldest city in Texas is a also a nice stop on the way.