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close up of chimp

Chimpanzees are our closest living relatives; it’s a well-known fact. But what does that really mean? For many decades, it meant that chimpanzees were used as substitutes for humans. We are so like them that scientists believed that their bodies could be used to gain a deeper understanding of everything from brain function to the efficacy of certain drugs.

But we now know that our close bond with chimpanzees is about much more than just our shared physical traits. We’ve learned that what we once considered uniquely human -- social intelligence, wide-ranging emotions, non-verbal communication, tool use -- is anything but. As Jane Goodall says in Safe Haven for Chimps, “chimps show there’s no sharp line dividing us from the rest of the animal kingdom.”

Biomedical research on chimps has persisted, despite everything we’ve learned. The U.S. is one of the last countries to allow it. But now that’s changing, signaling an evolution in our thinking.

chimp and chimp haven worker

Safe Haven for Chimps travels to the American deep south to Chimp Haven sanctuary to meet a special group of chimps, following a landmark decision in the U.S. to retire 300 federally-owned chimpanzees. It could mean the beginning of the end for all chimpanzees in research in the U.S. It’s been a long and complicated road, but as ethicist Lori Gruen says, “When I first started working on topics related to captive chimpanzees something like 20 years ago, I had really no idea that by this point in time we would be discussing the retirement of chimpanzees…”

In Safe Haven for Chimps we meet people who know that looking after former research chimpanzees means more than just rescuing them from a difficult life. A dramatic arrival from the lab sets the stage for a complicated journey that a retired chimpanzee must take before settling into a new life at the sanctuary.

Safe Haven for Chimps reveals how sanctuary staff care for these intelligent animals, some of whom can live for decades. Everything from a violin concert to an artificial termite mound to National Geographic magazines are used to help stave off boredom - the sanctuary’s biggest challenge. These chimps can’t be released into the wild - many were deliberately infected with diseases in the lab, others are psychologically damaged. And most of them don’t have the skills to survive in the wild, having been bred in labs.

At Chimp Haven, these highly social animals are given what they have lacked in research labs: the chance to live in a large social group, a family. But it’s not as simple as it sounds. On a bright, sunny morning, four elderly female chimps are introduced to their new family members, and we discover that family-building can be a tense and sometimes difficult process.

chimp in blanket

The chimpanzees that come to Chimp Haven haven’t always had positive relationships with humans. From volunteers to veterinarians, the people who work with the chimpanzees take time to gain the chimps’ trust. In a touching moment, head veterinarian Dr. Raven Jackson reveals the emotional challenges -- and rewards -- that such relationships bring.

Each chimpanzee that we meet in Safe Haven for Chimps is a unique individual, as different from each other as the people on a subway car. Their lives have been extraordinarily difficult, and each chimpanzee deals with it in its own way. But as Safe Haven for Chimps makes clear, these chimpanzees' lives are meaningful, and they deserve our compassion. As Kathleen Taylor, director of Animal Services at Chimp Haven, says: “These are feeling, caring, loving beings. And they put their life on the line for us unwillingly for so many years that it’s only right that we give back.  It’s only right that we provide an environment where they can live out the rest of their lives.”

 

Credits (Click to expand)

directed, produced and written by:
Tina Verma
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editor
Jacques Milette

c​inematography​
Michael Sweeney

sound recording​
Mary Wong
Paul Green

visual research
Gina Cali

additional cinematography
John Badcock​

aerial photography
gimbal tech / camera operator
Jeremiah Fry

aerial photography pilot
Eddie Weeks

sound design
Alan Geldart
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audio mix
Ron Searles

additional narration recording
Sterling Eyford

music consultant
Patrick Russell

graphic design
Kari Minchin
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online editing
Adam Champ

associate director
Renée Moreau

colourist
Eric Barnett
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resource coordinator
Megan Beeckman

unit manager
June Hall
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production manager
David Wilson

senior manager
Documentary Unit
Wilma Alexander
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senior producers
Caroline Underwood
FM Morrison
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executive producer
Sue Dando
executive director
Documentary Programming
Mark Starowicz

additional images
CriticalPast
Getty Images / BBC Motion Gallery
Historic Films Archive, LLC
Humane Society Of The United States
Shutterstock, Inc.
T3 Media / National Geographic
University of Louisiana at Lafayette

special thanks
Amanda Heffelfinger
Kathryn Wells
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produced with the participation of
CMF (logo)

ISAN logo  (paste logo from file provided)
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The Nature of Things
with David Suzuki
produced by
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
© 2015
cbc.ca/natureofthings

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