The soaring 29-foot domed ceilings, bathed in natural light, rival
anything Club Med has to offer.
Interior furnishings and trappings are equally luxurious — if you're a
chimpanzee, that is.
There are climbing bars and poles, tire and rope swings, and sunbathing
platforms in the cupolas. The hired help visits several times a day,
bringing crunchy biscuits, seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables, and
stimulating entertainment such as faux termite nests jammed with honey.
Welcome to the new chimp village at Southwest Foundation for Biomedical
Research. This is where research chimpanzees — humans' closest animal
relatives — will be able to live in social groups and spacious housing
when they are not actively part of a biomedical study.
"The best enrichment for any primate is another primate," said Suzette
Tardif, associate director of the Southwest National Primate Research
Center, which is at the foundation on Loop 410. "The best situation is
to get as many of your animals in social housing as possible."
The foundation has about 220 chimpanzees, which are used in studies when
scientists need close genetic relatives of humans. But some chimps go
years between studies. So three years ago, the primate center got a $2
million federal grant for special group housing for these animals.
Genetically speaking, chimpanzees and other apes are nearly identical to
humans, and their continued use in medical research remains an emotional
topic. Though chimp use has diminished over the years, scientists
maintain that some studies could not be done without them.
Foundation chimps have been used to develop and test vaccines for
hepatitis A and B and now are used in ongoing inquiries into hepatitis C
and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
"Chimps are very valuable because they do not develop the disease, but
they do develop the infection," Tardif said. "They do not get sick, but
still that makes them an excellent model for testing a vaccine."
Construction finished this summer on the 12 Primadomes, 35-foot-wide
geodesic domes crafted of galvanized iron and wire, which give the
chimps an unfettered view of the great outdoors. A short enclosed
walkway connects each outdoor enclosure to a concrete block bunker that
provides indoor housing for the animals in inclement weather.
A little village of domes now stands on quiet, parklike acreage at the
back of the foundation property, isolated from laboratory buildings and
vehicle traffic. Small groups of chimps began moving in last month, and
there now are nine chimps split between two domes.
They include Gabriel, "a big, spoiled baby," according to caretaker Bert
Barrera. Gabe has a shoe fetish; he once found an opening in his
enclosure that was large enough to grab a caretaker's foot and he held
on until she relinquished a boot.
Gracie, one of the younger females, didn't care much for the company
that came to visit and photograph her. She pitched stones and chimp
excrement as a nonverbal message for the strangers to get lost.
Eventually, food won her over. Gracie poked long hairy fingers through
the wires to snag dried apricots offered by Maribel Vazquez, another
caretaker on the foundation staff.
The animals live together in a complex social structure, with room for
individual personalities, alliances between animals and the inevitable
little spats, said Christina Grassi, director of animal enrichment.
A recent screaming outburst centered on the apricots, but just as
suddenly as it began, the chimps hugged and became friends again.
"They always reconcile at the end," Grassi said.
Grassi and her staff stretch their imaginations for things to amuse the
animals. Caretakers play peek-a-boo and "tickle tag" — a game that
encourages the animals to run along the rim of their enclosure to take
treats from the caretakers.
The animals celebrate the holidays, too, receiving treats and toys with
Thanksgiving and Christmas themes.
"We have an Easter egg hunt and a Fiesta celebration," Grassi said.
"We're hoping for some donated pumpkins for Halloween."