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On June 13, 2008, a truck bearing seven chimpanzees from Pennsylvania rolled up the driveway at Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest, a 26-acre site on a hillside east of Cle Elum above the Yakima River.

Camera crews and reporters recorded the arrival of Negra, Annie, Foxie, Jamie, Jody, Missy and Burrito, all retired from use in biomedical research and beginning a new life in a setting designed just for them. For sanctuary founder Keith LaChapelle, their arrival was the realization of a dream born on the day he first looked into a chimpanzee’s eyes and knew he needed to become involved in chimp rescue.

For the past five years, the public has had no opportunity to catch a glimpse the Upper County’s most unusual residents, a group dubbed the Cle Elum Seven. Now that’s about to change. This summer, probably in July or August, the center will offer a limited number of tours, said Diana Goodrich, CSNW’s director of outreach. 

The aim? To increase public awareness of the plight of chimpanzees, an endangered species, and build support for the sanctuary’s effort to help them.  

“We want people to see what we’re doing out here,” Goodrich said. 

Five years of moving forward

In honor of the five-year anniversary, Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest is celebrating with Give Five, a fundraising campaign asking supporters to donate $5 or more. As is tradition, the center will mark the anniversary of the chimps’ arrival with a birthday party for Negra, at 40, the oldest of the chimps. Negra, who was captured in the wild as a baby, is probably several years older than that, Goodrich said. 

“We refer to her as the ‘queen.’ She just seems to have that role. She’s respected,” Goodrich said. (Burrito, at 30, is the youngest chimp.)

As it begins its sixth year of operation, Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest has a staff of seven, an estimated 10,000 donors and an annual budget of $650,000. About 75 percent of the budget comes from donations. The remainder comes through fundraising, merchandise sales and miscellaneous revenue. The organization’s recent auction in Seattle, an annual event, netted $126,000 including $45,000 that will be used for mobile veterinary clinic at the sanctuary. In-kind donations include anesthesia equipment donated for the clinic.

Changes

In the beginning, the sanctuary included one long building with “front rooms” on one side, an indoor play room on the other, a “greenhouse” area (covered with panels during the colder, wetter months) and a laundry and kitchen area.

Today, the sanctuary building is connected to Youngs Hill, a two-acre site — fully enclosed by two tall high voltage electrical fences — that gives the chimps opportunity to roam in a more natural setting. Among the amenities: Ropes and the “shaky bridge,” a wooden bridge on ropes constructed as an Eagle Scout project. A stand of bamboo grows farther up the hill. The chimps don’t like to get their feet wet and aren’t excited about going out in the snow when winter comes. But they like to sit in the opening to the outdoors and eat handfuls of snow. 

“Now we fill a child’s wading pool with snow and bring it inside and they eat it all day long,” Goodrich said. 

The chimps’ diet, which once included rice and spaghetti noodles, now focuses entirely on produce. They eat 40 pounds of fresh produce a day. Donations from the local Safeway store and the Metropolitan Market in Seattle as well as from other sources help stretch the food budget. Sweet potatoes are popular. So are avocados. Gardens planted on the grounds augment the chimps’ diet. On a recent day, Goodrich paused to serve up purple-topped chives and yellow rose blossoms — a special treat — to Jamie and Jody.

There have been other changes, too.

Sarah Baeckler, formerly CSNW executive director, recently moved on to become executive director of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance. She’s been replaced at CSNW by Jennifer Whitaker, who as vice president of the Chimp Haven in Louisiana, helped coordinate the retirement of 111 chimps from the New Iberia Research Center to the sanctuary. Whitaker, who said as a child she was influenced by her father’s Peace Corps work in Uganda, said she’s long felt a “special connectedness to great apes.”

Despite the continuing improvements at the sanctuary, Goodrich said the biggest change at the sanctuary probably is in the chimps themselves. 

“It’s their confidence,” she said. “I think when they came they were just unsure. Now everybody is just so much more confident. Before they were being viewed as biomedical research subjects, now they’re they being viewed as chimps. There’s a definite change — like with Annie. When she first came here, she’d have anxiety attacks. She’d just scream or over react. It was not knowing what was going to happen.”

Wedding vows

The “connectedness” with chimpanzees Whitaker cites defines the staff.

Like Whitaker, “I’ve always had a fascination with great apes,” said Goodrich, who met her future husband, J.B. Mulcahy, the sanctuary’s operations director, while both were doing graduate work in the primate program at Central Washington University.

In July 2010, they exchanged vows at a small wedding on the sanctuary grounds.

“After the wedding, we went up to see the chimps,” Goodrich said. “We had bride and groom troll dolls on the cake. We gave them to Foxie.”

Foxie, known for her affinity for troll dolls, has now moved on to a fascination with Dora the Explorer. No one really knows why Foxie has the attraction to troll dolls and Dora the Explorer, Goodrich said. 

“We do know she had babies taken from her,” she said. “It may be a maternal thing.”

If Foxie has evolved in her passion for dolls, Jamie, a shoe devotee, remains fascinated by footwear, especially boots. The devotion prompted an Australian boot company to donate a box of custom-made boots designed to accommodate her opposable big toes.

Helping hands

The sanctuary counts a volunteer corps of 45 people who perform duties ranging from washing blankets — the chimps run through about 56 a day building “nests” — to cutting up produce and helping with other chores. Some volunteers are students in CWU’s primate program. Some, like Roslyn’s Denice Mikkelson, are local residents who found it to be a rewarding opportunity.

Mikkelson, now 58, signed on in October 2008 after reading a story in the Daily Record about the need for volunteers. 

“My husband was working out of town. They needed volunteers to prepare meals, clean produce and do laundry,” she said. “I figured I could do that.”

What she didn’t figure on was falling in love.

“When I met the chimps, that was it for me. I can’t do anything about the past, but from here on out I can make each day a little better for them,” said Mikkelson, now a level three volunteer.

That means she still cuts up produce and does laundry “as well as anything else they need me to do,” including cleaning the living areas.” (The sanctuary is designed so the chimps can be moved from one area to another to allow staff access as needed.)  Twice weekly she spends five to six hours at the sanctuary.

“It’s rewarding. It’s hard work,” Mikkelson said. “It’s very warm in the building. They keep it at 72 degrees. It’s humid. Sometimes it stinks. But I come home and feel like I’ve had a wonderful day.”

She calls the staff “wonderful” in the way they work together. 

“There are no egos involved,” she said.

Family dynamics

At least in terms of the staff, there are no egos. In terms of the chimps, that’s another story. 

Jamie is the dominant member of the group — and isn’t about to let anyone forget, even if she has to pitch a bit of unpleasantness from to time.

“She’s extremely intelligent and I think she realizes she is caged, or is more aware of that than some of the others. She’s frustrated. I feel for her,” Mikkelson said. “When she’s in a situation where someone else is getting attention she’ll throw poo. She’s a really intelligent girl.” 

As for her favorite? “That changes -— but I always go back to Negra. I think she’s an old soul,” Mikkelson said. “When a disagreement breaks out she seems to get in the middle of things and just puts her hands down like she’s saying, ‘Just stop now!’ It reminds me of my grandmother.”

Mikkelson said she has  “not a clue” how long she’ll volunteer there. What she knows for sure is that being involved there has changed her in a way she never expected.

“This has been one of the most educational five year periods of my life. It’s fascinating — and sad. “They say once you’ve looked into a great ape’s eyes your life changes,” she said. “I believe that.”

 

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