Michelle ‘Shelly’ Lakly, the new executive director of Save the Chimps, spent last Saturday becoming acquainted with supporters during Members Day – a rare treat, as the sanctuary is not open to the public. Lakly was previously employed in numerous capacities at the Nature Conservancy and Zoo Atlanta.
The largest privately funded sanctuary in the world, STC relies 100 percent on donors to care for their nearly 240 residents, all rescued from research laboratories, the entertainment industry and the pet trade.
“A majority of these animals came from research facilities and they spent their entire lives in medical research,” said Lakly. “It was just a horrible, horrible life for sentient animals.”
Taken from their mothers at six months, they lived for years in tiny 5- by 5- by 5-foot cages where they continually underwent biopsies and never interacted with other chimps.
Save the Chimps was formed in 1997 to rescue 21 chimps discarded as “surplus equipment” by the U.S. Air Force when no longer needed for NASA’s space research program. The chimps had been sent to the Coulston Foundation, a biomedical laboratory so abusive it soon lost its government funding, resulting in STC rescuing another 266 chimpanzees.
Today, the tranquil 150-acre sanctuary boasts 12 moated islands, each connected to hurricane-proof buildings in which chimp ‘families’ of eight to 24 enjoy their thrice daily meals.
At stations set up along the 1.25-mile tour, visitors learned about the loving care these magnificent animals receive from STC caregivers committed to their welfare. They also frequently heard from the chimpanzees themselves, who called out with pant-hoots.
“This is Ryan and he is going to show off. So he’s playing,” said Lakly about one particularly vocal male. “He may jump around, and what he’s doing is showing you how strong he is.”
Despite their years of abuse, STC caregivers have slowly built back their trust through positive reinforcement techniques to improve the process of caring for their every need. The chimps range in age from 12 to 55, and can live up to about 60 years old, so the commitment is enormous.
In addition to more than 700 personalized meals of mostly fruits and vegetables a day (including about 1,300 bananas daily), the sanctuary provides exceptional veterinarian care and enrichment activities.
Looking toward the future, Lakly wants to share their expertise with sanctuaries around the world and would also like to get involved in global conservation efforts to protect chimpanzees in their native habitats.
Additionally, she noted that in 2015 the sanctuary community compelled the passing of the Chimp Act, which forbids any more testing on chimpanzees.
“That’s only half the battle,” said Lakly. “We still have about 500 of these guys in similar laboratories. They’re not being tested on, but they’re still in those tiny cages getting nothing more than fed; no interaction, nothing more.”
The push now is finding sanctuary homes for them. Save the Chimps is currently at capacity, but they hope to eventually build three or four more islands, which would enable them to provide additional chimpanzees a chance to enjoy the freedoms they deserve.
For more information, visit savethechimps.org.