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Metro | State

Chimp village

Web Posted: 10/19/2004 12:00 AM CDT

Cindy Tumiel
Express-News Staff Writer

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."

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