Central Washington University

Web Exclusive: A Haven for Chimpanzees

Tucked in the Cascade Mountains outside Cle Elum is one of only a handful of sanctuaries in the country that cares for chimpanzees—the Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest (CSNW).


CSNW, which opened in June of 2008, provides sanctuary for seven chimpanzees who were previously used for entertainment, as pets, and in biomedical testing. The animals enjoy an indoor and outdoor environment, which gives them room to run, play, explore, and live a happy life.

A small staff of five along with volunteers and interns, work tirelessly to provide care and food for the primates.

The sanctuary and Central Washington University have a close relationship, which is crucial in providing the students of CWU’s Primate Behavior and Ecology program unique hands on experience.

“Learning about primates from a book or a lecture is very different from encountering the living and breathing animal. Our program provides that experience through fieldwork and internships,” noted Lori Sheeran, professor and interim chair of CWU’s Department of Anthropology and Museum Studies.

CWU is the only university in North America offering a BS in Primate Behavior and Ecology and a certificate in Captive Primate Care. The collaboration with CSNW allows students to enroll in classes, taught by the sanctuary director and CWU alumni JB Mulcahy, where they learn the best practices in primate care.

“I graduated from CWU in 2001 with a Master's in primate behavior, and the combination of education and hands-on experience I found there opened doors for me and enabled me to pursue a career that I am passionate about,” said J.B. Mulcahy, director of CSNW and a CWU professor. “I love the fact that we are able to help today's students find those same opportunities, whether they are interested in research, teaching, conservation, or caring for primates in sanctuaries like ours.”

Sheeran noted that as the students’ skills grow, their responsibilities increase.

“They may become involved in designing enrichment activities, feeding the chimpanzees and cleaning enclosures, and, in some cases, designing projects and collecting data that help us understand how to improve the lives of the CSNW chimpanzees and other primates living in sanctuary,” Sheeran said.

CWU was once the home to the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI), housing five chimpanzees who learned to communicate with humans and other primates by using sign language.

When three of those chimpanzees died of natural causes a few years ago, the remaining two, Tatu and Loulis, were relocated to the Fauna Sanctuary in Montreal, Quebec. Primates are mentally and behaviorally complex animals that thrive in larger social groups. The Fauna Sanctuary could best provide a stimulating environment for Tatu and Loulis.

“Although the CHCI chimpanzees have moved to Fauna Foundation, our students are still very much active at CSNW, which has been crucial partner in developing our students’ skills in captive care,” Jessica Mayhew, the director of the Primate Behavior and Ecology program said.

The need for primate care is growing. Chimpanzees have been gradually moving from research settings into sanctuaries since the 2015 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classification of chimpanzees as endangered and the National Institute of Health’s announcement it would no longer support biomedical research on chimpanzees.

“Biomedical research on monkeys continues in the United States, with tens of thousands of them currently housed in laboratories across the country,” Sheeran said. “Some of those individuals will be retired from research protocols into sanctuary settings, and this is likely to continue for a number of decades in the future.”

Because of this, CSNW is investing in an expansion.

“When the sanctuary first started ten years ago, we were narrowly focused on doing the best we could for the seven chimpanzees in our care,” Mulcahy said. “But over the last few years, we’ve been able to think about the long-term future of the sanctuary, one that will include rescuing more chimpanzees and eventually other primate species.”

Over the last two years, CSNW has purchased an additional 64 acres of land, bringing the sanctuary property to 90 acres. Since then, it has begun working on the expansion project. After constructing a new access road to the chimpanzee facility, the sanctuary can begin the first phase of a planned facility expansion, which will provide the sanctuary with better veterinary facilities and space to quarantine and socialize incoming chimpanzees.

Phases two and three, which CSNW hopes to complete within the next couple years, will allow it to house an additional group of chimpanzees.

“In the end, we hope to provide a home for 10 to 20 chimpanzees who are currently waiting in laboratories for their chance at sanctuary life,” Mulcahy said.

“Caring for primates is a rewarding and fulfilling experience that helps you forget your own troubles and enjoy the simple pleasure of doing something positive for another being,” Sheeran said. “With so few primates remaining in nature, it is a privilege to get a glimpse of the inner workings of these individuals’ lives.”


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