Squealing and jumping: Christmas at Florida chimp rescue

By Ana Mengotti

Fort Pierce, US, Dec 11 (EFE).- The chimpanzees at the Save the Chimps reserve in Florida welcome the few lucky visitors allowed in for Christmas with shrieks and jumps.

In the best cases, the 227 chimpanzees that live in the reserve, one of the largest in the world dedicated to the primates that share nearly 99% of their DNA with humans, were pets.

Most of them, however, came from laboratories where the animals are used to test medicines and treatments aimed at caring for human health, or from the entertainment industry.

Amy Alvarez, an employee at the reserve that was founded by primatologist Carole Noon in 1997 on a 60.7-hectare farm near the town of Fort Pierce, 205 kilometers (123 miles) north of Miami, is familiar with the trauma that the chimps’ former “bad life” in labs and on film sets has had on the primates in her care.


Today is a big day because the doors are open to a limited number of visitors to witness the Christmas parties that are organized on some of the 12 artificial islands where most of the chimpanzees live, save for those who are still adapting to the center or have problems of some kind.

The latter are kept temporarily in large metal cages, equipped with amusements such as hammocks and mirrors.

“They are one of the few animals that have self-awareness. When they look in the mirror they touch their faces and teeth,” Alvarez says.

Visits have to be made by appointment, and many of the visitors – most of whom are elderly – are regulars, to the point that they know the chimps’ names and can even recognise them through their binoculars as the animals play with the Christmas gifts and decorations that have been placed on their islands, which are all behind moats as the chimps can’t swim.

First time visitors to the reserve are full of questions for the volunteers at Save the Chimps, who distribute laminated sheets with photographs and names of the chimpanzees that live on the island where the party is being held.

Each island is home to a “family” of chimpanzees. There are 12 groups at the reserve which do not interact. CHIMP PAINTERS

During the recent Miami Art Week, Save the Chimps presented an exhibition of 15 paintings by 10 chimpanzees who showed an interest when they were provided with canvases and paints as part of one of the reserve’s programs.

Dan Mathews, director of events at Save the Chimps, tells EFE that six works were sold for $5,000 each, adding that one of them was bought by the singer Pink.

Some of the abstract acrylic paintings are on display in the reserve’s gift shop, next to the photograph of the artists, chimps Dylan, Sophie and Lili Minie.

Chimpanzee painter Lili Minie was a family pet before coming to the reserve and, according to Alvarez, is the one who takes up the brushes with the most ease and delicacy, precisely because of all the time she spent interacting with humans.

When Alvarez is asked what is the “most human” thing she has seen one of the chimpanzees in her care do, she says she saw one imitating the work of the caretakers by cleaning the benches and the floor of the refuge with a brush. EFE


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