Recently I had the privilege of visiting a chimpanzee sanctuary located right here in the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains in Morganton called ‘Project Chimps.”
I first heard about it after coming across an advertisement for an event they were going to be having in April called “Chimps Rock.” If you missed this one, rest assured there are several more to come as they hold about four special events each year.
The “Chimps Rock” event was aimed toward the younger community to help teach children about the chimpanzees and the importance of preserving and appreciating all animal wildlife. Each child was given a rock to paint as well to commemorate their unique experience at the sanctuary that day.
Although I did not attend this special event I was invited to a private tour of the sanctuary where I was greeted by my very informative tour guide, Megan Hume. The day couldn’t have been more perfect for my unique experience, and Megan was very gracious to explain to me about the sanctuary and all they had to offer the chimpanzees who reside there as well as the educational enlightment of the visitors.
The sanctuary is not currently open daily to the public, but you can call ahead for special tours. They do offer walking trails around the retreat and plan to open much of the facility to the public in the future. For now one can book a special event or private tour or plan an educational event, and they also help out many of the local Boy Scouts with special challenge courses, classes and retreats. They also welcome volunteers and encourage donations to the sanctuary, with a list of items to donate found on their website.
The huge sanctuary envelops 236 acres overall with an average of 32 staff members and 150 active volunteers to help with the maintenance of the grounds as well as the special care of the chimpanzees.
The sanctuary began only a few years ago after a federal law was passed in 2015 that made all chimpanzees, wild and captive, a protected species, banning any more invasive laboratory research done on them.
The funding for the sanctuary came from the Humane Society of the United States. Immediately small groups of chimps were brought to the new sanctuary here from one of the largest research labs in New Iberia, Louisiana where they could begin to live out their new lives in peace and tranquility in a normal and happy environment. Currently, 77 chimps call the sanctuary home, with another 100 targeted to arrive once the future enlargement of the facility is completed with the phase two expansion. Right now the chimps who still remain behind at the lab are not experiencing any more of the research and are peacefully waiting to join their fellow chimps!
While on the tour at the sanctuary we got to see the much more inhabitant friendly environment the chimps are able to enjoy – five large chimp villas, two large lush natural habitats with plenty of homegrown vegetables, climbing apparatus, toys and plenty of trails and trees to climb as well as the companionship of other chimpanzees!
Many of the buildings that house the chimps were donated by celebrities who are passionate animal advocates – people like Rachael Ray who donated the kitchen building and Bob Barker who also funded another habitat there.
As I walked the trail around the habitat with Megan she would point out the way that the chimpanzees would acknowledge a gesture of friendliness and camaraderie with other chimps as well as humans.
She explained that the grimace and loud vocal noises a chimp could make would be a sign of distress, and she disliked seeing videos or pictures of chimps portrayed in this way. I totally agree that humans need to have a better understanding of our very close relatives, the chimpanzees.
They are extremely intelligent and hold many of the feelings that we have. In fact chimpanzees share 95 percent of our DNA and have close bonds with their families and can feel sadness and loss and happiness just as humans do.
All of the chimps residing at the sanctuary enjoy a very happy life, free from the pains and isolation of their last environment, one that no one will ever know. Megan explains “none of their past experiences, research, etc., could be shared with us when they arrived here” but she does admit that each was left to experience their new and happier environment on their own time.
“Some enjoy going outside,” Megan says, “but some do not wish to explore the new habitat feeling more at ease inside. And that is fine too.”
The staff is very careful to treat each chimp as an individual, and all have their own names and have individual personalities like people, and are treated with the same respect, privacy and love that they so long have been without.
Some of the future expansions for the sanctuary will include a new Visitor Center and “Glamping Cabins” for those who want the finer experience to camping (they even are offering weddings for those who want that unique experience as well).
The sanctuary also welcomes spring breakers to come and stay and learn about the chimps and volunteer their time. One of the buildings located at the sanctuary is an old 19th century cabin which they use for classrooms, meetings, or housing for students.
A beautiful koi pond is located near the cabin with beautiful walking trails surrounding the area with lush and beautiful blooming plants such as rhododendrons to enjoy.
They also have their own veterinarian hospital with their own staff vet to make sure all of the chimps remain healthy and are treated for any health issues when necessary.
I had a wonderful experience at the Chimp Sanctuary that day, one which I will never forget. I hope more visitors can appreciate all the sacrifices those animals have made for us and how we must understand to respect and be kind to all animals because they deserve a life of peace and happiness just as we do.