We first learned about the five chimpanzees living in the hills of northwest Georgia in the summer of 1997. Kevin Ivester, a former board member of the Simian Society of America, explained that little was known about the animals because the owner kept to herself. She was purportedly in failing health, and it was rumored that the chimps would soon be transferred to a nearby roadside zoo. Ivester promised to try to get more information, but the prospects weren’t encouraging.

On October 1, we received a call from the owner—a 55-year-old diabetic with heart problems who was recovering from injuries sustained in an auto accident seven months earlier. She had just decided that the “zoo” was not a fit home for her chimps, and was in a panic because the zoo owner—angered by her change of mind—knew that the animals’ living quarters had not been cleaned since her accident. She feared that he would turn her in to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, which might confiscate her “babies.” (She brought the chimps into Georgia in 1977, and was “grandfathered in” when the state later enacted its Exotic Animal Law barring the private possession of certain dangerous primates, carnivores, reptiles, etc.)

After learning that these five animals—who ranged in age from 24 to 28 years old—were bedded on newspaper in two 10 x 10-foot cubicles, we convinced the owner to allow us to clean the enclosures and do some needed repairs. We loaded our pressure washer, cleaning equipment, and Rachel Weiss—a newly hired former Yerkes caretaker—and drove the 350 miles to Dahlonega, Georgia, on October 5.

Nothing could have prepared us for what we found: the 20 x 25-foot concrete block building, built 20 years earlier, had deteriorated beyond repair. The iron caging material, fashioned from items scavenged from a 19th century jailhouse, was almost completely covered with expanded mesh. The owner traveled quite a bit, and a system of access doors and food bins—which once allowed others to feed the animals in relative safety in her absence—now had gaping holes through which the chimps could (and did) grab passersby. What’s more, we were told that the chimps were only given water twice daily from cups, although during seven days there we only saw them receive water once.
The building was dark and damp, with little ventilation, its wretchedness made worse by an adjacent chain-link goat enclosure with a 2-foot-deep mixture of hay and feces. The temperature was in the high 80s, and the smell made our knees nearly buckle. We donned our masks, gloves, long pants, and long-sleeve shirts and dug in.

The building’s two 10 x 10 cubicles were separated by a 5 x 10-foot holding area. The shift doors hadn’t been opened in so long they were corroded shut. Late in the day, we were finally able to pry them open enough to allow the two chimps on the right end to join the three on the left. That gave us access to the chimp living space and a chance to assess the work ahead of us. Newspaper, old food containers, and waste littered the small space. To make room for themselves, the chimps had learned to push everything against the front walls of their cells, forming a mass in each cubicle that was 4 feet wide, 3 feet deep, and 10 feet long.

Kevin Ivester would be arriving the next day, but we realized we’d need additional manpower. That help came the following morning from Jane and Steuart Dewar, who had recently moved to Georgia to begin development of Gorilla Haven. Two long days later, the spaces were finally clean.
We visited again in late-October to install a rudimentary watering system. Although the owner had assured us she could enlist local help to maintain the cleaned-up facilities, nothing had been done since that previous visit. Heavy rains left three inches of standing water in the chimp areas, as the drains were again stopped up with newspaper the animals used for bedding. The chimps were now all confined to one 10 x 10 cubicle; the other side was being used for some of her dogs, which she didn’t want to leave out in the rain.

We cleaned, mopped, and installed drain covers that could be removed for cleaning. The rest of the visit was spent installing iron strap reinforcements on the building’s exterior to prevent the chimps from further dislodging several loose cinder blocks. We also began talking to the owner about finding another home for the chimps, and left with a promise that she wouldn’t continue to house the dogs in the chimp area.

Two days later, she suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized. By phone, she indicated she was terrified that DNR would confiscate her animals. She pleaded with us to take ownership of them, and we had her sign a donation agreement. The chimps could now be evacuated—but the question was, to where?

We contacted Dr. Sarah (Sally) Boysen, with the Chimp Cognition Lab at Ohio State University, who had successfully rescued several privately owned chimpanzees. After exhausting other possibilities, she called colleagues at the Yerkes Regional Primate Center in nearby Atlanta. They graciously agreed to temporarily house and quarantine the chimps at their field station in Lawrenceville, a short drive from Dahlonega. They further offered their veterinary services and a van to immobilize and transport the animals.

While these negotiations were underway, the owner returned home from the hospital. Now, we’d need to get her cooperation. She finally agreed that the animals could be moved, but insisted it must be done on Thursday, November 13. As we headed for Georgia on November 11, Sally Boysen called to say that Yerkes would not have a vet available that day, but the facility was otherwise ready to accept the chimps. The design of their cages would not allow us to transfer the chimpanzees without anesthetizing them, and while we had them “down” we wanted to perform complete physicals, as they had not had veterinary care in nearly 20 years. We needed to find a qualified veterinary team, and quickly.

We called zoos in Atlanta and Knoxville, to no avail. In desperation, we called Dr. George Rabb, the director of the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, hoping he could persuade a local zoo to help us. To our astonishment, we received a call back within the hour offering the services of a Brookfield vet, an assistant, and any necessary equipment. Dr. Tom Meehan and Vince Sodaro flew to Atlanta the next evening, and we met to plan our strategy for the move.

With few hitches, the animals were immobilized, examined, and transported to the Yerkes Field Station the following morning. They spent the next 10 months there while we set about the task of finding them a permanent home. Although we were already housing seven young chimpanzees who had recently arrived from New York University’s Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP), the facility under construction for these seven would only accommodate one or two additional animals.

We combed the United States, visiting sanctuaries and exploring options in an attempt to find another permanent home for the Georgia chimps. What we found was discouraging, to say the least. With LEMSIP having sent almost 100 chimpanzees to U.S. sanctuaries prior to closing in late 1997 (including the seven which we took in), nearly every facility was full.

Those not at capacity were generally having trouble caring for their animals, and simply could not insure the stable future we felt these animals deserved. With time running out and our deadline looming, we came to the painful realization that we must somehow build housing to accommodate them.

We contracted for an outdoor enclosure and made plans to transport the five chimps to Kentucky. Although we missed our deadline for moving them out of Georgia, Yerkes agreed to a time extension while we readied temporary caging for them. Finally, in the fall of 1998, the five chimps arrived at the Primate Rescue Center. And on July 6, 1999, they moved through our tunnel system to their new outside enclosure. After years of confinement in a miserable dark bunker, they were free to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine.