Why Is This Chimp Smiling?

Seven apes arrived last year in Cle Elum. They’d been used up by medical science and the entertainment industry—and left to rot in tiny cages. Then one man showed them the depths of human kindness.

By James Ross Gardner November 13, 2009 Published in the December 2009 issue of Seattle Met

OH, IT’S CHAOS. Like a toy store after a hurricane. Scattered Fisher-Price play stations—with all those horns, buttons, and dials—thrown in with piles of brightly colored blocks, troll dolls, pink tutus, and neckties fit for circus clowns. And that’s before the residents, back from lunch, come knuckle dragging in to tear up the playroom some more, ripping cardboard boxes, tossing chairs. Some don mismatched socks on their handlike feet and build makeshift tents out of blankets. The ringleader, a chimp named Jamie, throws a tutu over her waist, goes Jackson Pollock with a fistful of Crayolas on a sheet of paper, and spits water at the humans gawking near the playroom gates.

The seven chimps at Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest, a 26-acre farm five miles east of Cle Elum, have never had it better. Until a year and half ago, the apes were the wards of a Pennsylvania company that rents out lab animals and had spent decades as medical test subjects—pumped full of drugs and split open for biopsies. At least two also had stints in showbiz.

The sanctuary, opened in 2008, is a far cry from the cramped, windowless warehouse basement the animals came from. Their 18,000-cubic-foot “chimp house” includes a roomy two-story play area, four interconnected front rooms, windows that look out onto the Cascade forests, and an outdoor area where the apes swing on the monkey bars of a 15-foot climbing structure. A staff of primatologists serves them fruit smoothies in the mornings, stages elaborate birthday parties involving fruit-filled piñatas, and films their daily antics, especially those of Jamie, a 32-year-old primeval Huck Finn whose knack for outwitting other chimps keeps the staff scratching their heads.

For Sarah Baeckler, who runs the sanctuary with two former Central Washington University classmates, the creation of CSNW came as a bittersweet triumph at the end of a painful and sometimes frightening decade of watching chimps suffer under the cruelest conditions. For Keith LaChappelle, who drained his life savings to create the sanctuary, CSNW culminates six years of labor, during which he was forced to confront the source of his once ample riches.

LaChappelle read a Discover article in 2003 that changed his life. A construction project manager at Immunex, a bioengineering firm on Seattle’s Western Avenue, LaChappelle was thumbing through a year-old copy of the magazine when he came across “An Embarrassment of Chimps,” a story about a sanctuary in Montreal that rescued 15 chimpanzees from a New York lab.

The article plunged LaChappelle into the world of captive chimpanzees. He learned how researchers infect hundreds of our closest relatives—chimps share more than 95 percent of our DNA—with viruses like HIV and hepatitis, inject them with unproven drugs, cut them open for organ biopsies, and discard them when they’re no longer of use.

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Keith LaChappelle, who spent $200,000 and six years of his life to rescue the chimps, greets Foxie.

LaChappelle was feeling discarded himself. When he started at Immunex 11 years earlier he was just out of the Navy, where he’d worked on nuclear propulsion systems and was, he says, the only seaman on his battleship who didn’t cheer when it was announced in 1991 that the U.S. had invaded Iraq. He oversaw the building and renovation of laboratories at Immunex, which manufactured the drug Leukine, designed to raise the white blood cell count of leukemia patients undergoing chemo. In a room LaChapelle had no access to, Immunex kept mice for testing, which nagged at him. Growing up in a Denver suburb and rural Minnesota, he and his sister reigned over an ark of critters—dogs, cats, guinea pigs, ducks, rabbits, and ferrets. Testing on mice was bad enough, he thought, but one day he overheard an employee talk about Immunex potentially contracting out Leukine experiments on chimpanzees.

The Discover article further spurred his guilt. “It talked about how a lot of chimpanzees aren’t actively being used for research,” LaChappelle explains, “but they’re still languishing in these five-by-five lab cages because there’s nowhere for them to go.”

Now the company that had recently acquired Immunex was about to lay him off, and the six-figure severance package barely dulled the sting. He was 36 years old with no job and no plans for the future. But he did have $200,000. He faxed the article to his sister Cynthia, at the time a caretaker at the Dallas Zoo. He included a note: “You want to start an ape sanctuary with me?”

Then he hopped on a plane.

He visited the handful of existing sanctuaries around the country, such as Save Chimps in Florida. He asked questions and studied the construction of chimp houses. In 2004 he made his way to Montreal’s Fauna Foundation, the sanctuary in the Discover article. There he met Billy Jo. The chimp had undergone nearly 50 biopsies in labs and, under the hallucinogenic effects of the tranquilizer ketamine, chewed off his own thumbs. LaChappelle looked into the chimp’s eyes and saw the depth of intelligence and awareness. “After that it was no longer just an ideal or dream,” LaChappelle says. “I had to do something.”

Humans and chimpanzees—which broke off from a common ancestor 6 million years ago—have a complex relationship to say the least. In the twentieth century alone, we used chimps as crash test dummies, carved them up to better understand the human body, and dressed them in diapers and tuxedos and beat them into submission so they’d make us laugh.

We started to understand them, too. Through Jane Goodall’s observations in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania in the ’60s and ’70s, we discovered chimpanzees’ profound intelligence, that they make and use tools (such as twigs to extract termites from holes), mourn the loss of dead offspring, and perform elaborate “rain dances” during downpours.

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Chimps in captivity, which can live to up to 60 years, have learned as many as 800 words in American Sign Language. In 1995 Roger Fouts, the primatologist at Central Washington University’s Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute—renowned for his role in teaching Washoe the chimp sign language—visited a New York lab for a reunion with Booee, a chimp whom he’d taught to sign a quarter of a century earlier. Despite not having seen his teacher in 16 years, the chimp immediately began signing Fouts’s name.

Chimps remember. And that may be the most chilling aspect of their role in medical experiments. Today some 1,200 chimps are still in use for invasive biomedical research, according to the Humane Society of the United States. We’ve subjected them to our worst diseases and sliced away at their organs, yes, but we’ve also cramped them into tiny cages, where they spend decades awaiting the next experiment or death.

Chimp No. 522 had a habit. Confined to a cage in a windowless basement, the female ape plucked her hair right down to the skin. Not indiscriminate plucking. Careful plucking—hours and hours to maintain a teardrop shape of bald skin that extended from her chest to her stomach, exposing a moon-white and freckled potbelly.

Chimps had little more to do at Buckshire, the facility 40 miles north of Philadelphia that rented animals—dogs, cats, rabbits, monkeys, chimps—to labs for scientific research. No. 522 was Jamie when a caretaker felt enough of a bond to call her by name. She was No. 522 when she was shipped off to labs for injections of unproven hepatitis vaccines or for another liver biopsy.

If you’re a caretaker at Buckshire it’s easier to think of the animals as numbers. In 1994 a former-employee–turned-whistleblower claimed she’d witnessed, among other atrocities, a coworker exterminate some 20 unwanted kittens. His method: breaking their necks with his bare hands. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals snuck an undercover investigator into the company. Not only did the investigator allegedly confirm the whistleblower’s claims, he discovered more than 40 chimpanzees languishing in the basement.

“They were in cages that didn’t even meet the pathetic minimum standard of five-by-five-foot cages that would have met federal requirements,” recalls Mary Beth Sweetland, who led the 1994 investigation for PETA. “Imagine having nothing to look at but the cinderblock wall opposite your cage, and you’re in an area that measures approximately 18 square feet and you’ve been there for years.”

Buckshire denied the cat abuse, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees breeding- and lab-animal supply, charged the company with 16 violations, none of them enough to shut down the facility.

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There was no denying the small size of the chimp cages. PETA’s pressure forced Buckshire to begin releasing the apes to sanctuaries around the country. Slowly they shipped out, a handful at a time. By 2006 just seven chimps remained in the basement: One male named Burrito and six females, Annie, Foxie, Jody, Missy, Negra, and—with bare skin in the shape of a teardrop on her torso—Jamie.

Aside from her creative self-mutilation, little set Jamie apart from the other six chimps. For now all her caretakers could do was point to spotty paperwork with vague references to her entertainment background (“CH522—DOB 1977 domestic bred, circus animal”).

Researchers infect chimps with HIV and hepatitis, inject them with unproven drugs, and cut them open for organ biopsies.

Some mornings, wheeling up Yerba Buena Road as it corkscrewed through the Santa Monica Mountains, 26-year-old Sarah Baeckler wondered, Is today the day he finds out? Is today the day Sidney Yost sees Apollo sink an incisor into her arm and, when she doesn’t reach for the Ugly Stick to show that petulant chimp who’s boss, discovers she’s an imposter?

There’d been a beating every day since she arrived at Yost’s Amazing Animal Actors training compound in the hills above Malibu. Chimpanzees knocked upside the head with a sawed-off broom handle (the Ugly Stick) and kicked and punched like the shirtless barflies in Fight Club. “Kick her in the face as hard as you can,” Yost had told Baeckler, referring to an unruly chimp. “You can’t hurt her.”

You didn’t ignore Sidney Yost. In his 30-plus years in the industry the Hollywood animal trainer had stared down all manner of beasts for shows like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. The guy looked wild—thick and burly with a tuft of blond hair. And on his leg, says Baeckler, a police-monitored ankle bracelet. He’d recently been convicted in Florida for bankruptcy fraud.

Baeckler had tricked Yost into taking her on as an intern. She told the trainer she wanted to learn how to work with exotic animals, neglecting to mention that she’d been recruited by an organization formed to expose Hollywood’s treatment of chimpanzees and funded in part by Seattle’s Glaser Progress Foundation (led by RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser). In truth, Baeckler understood chimps better than Yost; she held a master’s degree from Central Washington University’s Primate Behavior and Ecology program. A short young woman with horn-rimmed glasses and pale skin—pretty, but as harmless looking as a librarian—Baeckler wasn’t perceived as a threat. “Come on up,” he said.

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Throughout her year posing as an intern, from June 2002 to July 2003, Baeckler would see trainers punish chimps for the smallest infractions, like when four-year-old Apollo reached for a cage mate (a punch in the face), or when three-year-old Cody wouldn’t lie down (a sharp jerk on his lower lip), or when two-year-old Teá threw a fit (a blow to the head so hard she required stitches).

See, a good chimp actor doesn’t act like a chimp. A good chimp actor acts like an actor actor. Smiles on cue. Sits patiently in a race-car suit, as one of Yost’s chimps did on an episode of That ’70s Show. Chimpanzees are curious, aggressive, and anything but docile, often performing for the cameras only under the threat of violence. In the wild, when they’re anxious or fear for their lives, they bare their teeth, which looks like a human smile, a fact Hollywood trainers have exploited for decades. Once, after Apollo returned from a TV commercial shoot, Baeckler was asked to unpack the duffel bag that had accompanied him. Inside she found an electric cattle prod.

Biting caretakers was automatic grounds for a beating, and the chimps bit Baeckler all the time. But she didn’t strike back, which set her apart from the other trainers and volunteers, and increased the chances of the ruse being exposed. The brutality she witnessed every day had her on edge, and she dreaded what might happen to her if Yost realized she was there to destroy his career.

But Baeckler could see hope at the other end. She always had. She came from Hopewell, New Jersey, population 2,035, home of Charles Lindbergh. After reading a chapter on Jane Goodall in the fourth grade, Baeckler made a decision, one she’s never wavered from, to follow in Goodall’s footsteps and bring hope to endangered primates.

As she approached the compound gates each morning she gave herself a pep talk: Her time with Yost would pay off. The notes she scribbled describing what she believed were violations of California’s animal cruelty laws later bolstered a lawsuit against Amazing Animal Actors. With her hero Jane Goodall at her side, Baeckler presented these findings to Hollywood actors, directors, and producers.

She would stop Yost by spreading the truth. When a chimp smiles on-screen, you’re not watching a happy chimp. You’re watching an animal grimace with fear.

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By 2005, Keith LaChappelle’s dream of opening a sanctuary was under way. He hunched over an oak desk in his living room poring over books on chimpanzee behavior and chimpanzee care, studying catalogs on wire mesh and building systems. He bought an old farm on the outskirts of Cle Elum, 80 miles southeast of Seattle, and moved into the small house on the premises. Alone, with nothing but horses to witness his progress, he began to build. Often in a baseball cap and a T-shirt tucked into a tan Utilikilt, he laid the cement foundation and raised supporting beams. Occasionally his friends would throw him building parties, each contributing their expertise.

In between construction stages he continued to visit chimp sanctuaries, including San Antonio’s Primarily Primates, Sarah Baeckler’s new post. She was four years off her Sidney Yost investigation. Yost denied her accusations, but her work forced his hand; to avoid a lawsuit Yost agreed to release all his chimps to sanctuaries. Sadly, Apollo, the chimp with whom Baeckler had most bonded, never made it out. He died, she was told, from a snake bite on Yost’s compound, alone on a cage floor.

Baeckler vowed to fight for chimps even harder. She had recently finished a law degree at Lewis and Clark to sharpen her animal rights arsenal and was now helping clean up the poorly run Primarily Primates.

Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest director Sarah Baeckler with Jamie and Annie.

She told LaChappelle that she and two former Central Washington University primatology classmates, Diana Goodrich and J. B. Mulcahy, also had plans to open a sanctuary. But the more she and LaChappelle talked, the more they realized they should all join forces. And so Baeckler, Goodrich, and Mulcahy joined LaChappelle’s fledgling Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest.

They had a nearly completed facility but no apes. Then: “I received a phone call from a woman at PETA,” LaChappelle recalls, “and she said, ‘Do you know about these seven chimps in Pennsylvania?’ Buckshire was desperate to unload them.

LaChappelle flew to Philly. He and Mulcahy piled into Mulcahy’s 1998 Dodge Neon and followed the truck and trailer that transported the chimps from Buckshire’s warehouse to Washington state. “It was a pretty intense trip,” LaChappelle recalls. “We’d been working like seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day, putting the finishing touches on the sanctuary. Then we had to fly out and drive across country, nonstop.”

The truck rolled up the hill to the sanctuary around eight in the morning on June 13, 2008. The Cle Elum Seven were home.

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The chimps looked terrible. Pale from lack of sun exposure, muscles atrophied from living in confined spaces, they blinked at their new surroundings. Jamie scooted out of her transport cage, exposing her hairless torso, and into her new home.

Slowly, the staff introduced toys and other items the chimps had never known. Foxie, a 31-year-old, had spent her life as a breeder in labs and had borne five babies that were taken from her. Within weeks, she took a liking to troll dolls with punked out hair and began carrying them everywhere. Negra, at 35 the oldest chimp and probably the only one born in the wild, hooded herself in a blanket like an old sage. The chief caretaker at Buckshire had told Baeckler and the staff that Negra was the alpha chimp. That quickly proved to be a laughable assessment, likely stemming from the fact that Negra was the oldest and biggest. She turned out to be one of the least dominant. It was Jamie who established herself as the undisputed leader.

Once the chimps adjusted to their new surroundings, the Cle Elum staff began setting out fruit such as nectarines, one for each chimp. Jamie snagged hers and, as the other chimps watched, made a lackluster attempt to steal Jody’s nectarine. “Then without warning Jamie looked up and, at the top of her lungs, started screaming and saliva dripped from her mouth, just having a complete fit,” Mulcahy recalls. “And all the other chimps, when that happens, they get worked up, too. It’s contagious. So everyone started running around and fighting and screaming. And Jamie just calmly went around and picked up all the nectarines they’d dropped. That was her strategy. She’s just playing them all, you know? It’s just like one big setup and no one else realized it.”

Jamie also displayed the most human behavior of the chimps. She’s the most likely to draw with crayons and try on clothes and mimic the actions of her caretakers. Aside from scant medical documentation, records for the chimps are nonexistent; no one is really sure where they’ve all been for the past 30 years. But Sarah and the sanctuary staff assume that Jamie had a lot of human training in her past.

Jamie, with self-plucked torso, the day she arrived at the sanctuary. (Above) Jamie today.

Keith LaChappelle left Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest in January 2009. Having spent all $200,000 to save the apes, he took a job at an animal adoption center near Everett and turned the reins over to Sarah Baeckler, now director of the sanctuary, J. B. Mulcahy, who oversees operations, and Diana Goodrich, in charge of outreach. Mulcahy and Goodrich, life partners, live in LaChappelle’s old house on the property. But LaChappelle still figures into the chimps’ lives. In October, CSNW, which relies on donations and small grants from animal rights groups, held a benefit auction at Seattle’s Fremont Abbey Arts Center. Chimp-loving Seattleites turned out in force to bid on paintings (Foxie with a pink-haired troll doll) and yoga classes and Caribbean cruises.

LaChappelle took the stage in a T-shirt and straw hat to draw a name for the raffle. The master of ceremonies, KOMO-TV’s Michelle Esteban, recounted all that LaChappelle had done for the Cle Elum Seven. When the audience jumped out of its seats for a standing ovation, he cracked a shy grin. As the auction proceeded, LaChappelle, his face still red from embarrassment, faded into the shadows at the back of the room, where he turned to the person next him and said, “Anything for the chimps. Anything.”

On a soggy October day, the Cle Elum valley cloaked in fog, Sarah Baeckler and Diana Goodrich stand beside the facility’s outdoor area. As Baeckler explains how, a few months earlier, the city council had approved a proclamation declaring the chimps official citizens of Cle Elum, Jamie, the only chimp who braved the cold, claps her hands on the other side of the wire mesh, pleading with Goodrich for a piece of gum. Baeckler is amazed by Jamie’s intelligence. But it’s bittersweet. The chimp’s humanlike behavior suggests she spent a lot of time being trained to act like a human, and Baeckler, more than anyone, knows what horrors that entails. Nine labs in the U.S. still use chimps for invasive medical research. And while the frequency has dwindled thanks to activists like Baeckler, chimps still show up on TV and movie screens—though none are wrangled by Sid Yost.

Goodrich runs to the other end of the outdoor area and claps, Jamie gallops after her and claps, too. Baeckler breaks a smile as she watches. A real smile. They run from end to end, clapping in unison, back and forth. Human and ape.

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