FORT PIERCE — For the 10 chimps that arrived at the Save the Chimps sanctuary recently, it was the first time their feet have ever touched grass.
The chimps have all spent decades suffering in animal testing labs and living in small, barren concrete cages.
Now, they'll spend the rest of their days roaming 12 artificial islands with hills, trees, play gyms and hammocks.
The crew of chimpanzees arrived at the 150-acre sanctuary from Save the Chimps' New Mexico location, formerly the Coulston Foundation biomedical research lab, notorious for repeated animal abuse violations.
Save the Chimps took over the lab in 2002 after the lab went bankrupt.
"There's outdoor caging in New Mexico, and there's still concrete floor," said Save the Chimps development director Triana Romero. "There is no grass outside, so when they come here, it's the first time they've touched grass. Ever."
The recent migration of the 10 chimps to the Fort Pierce sanctuary leaves 99 chimps in New Mexico to be relocated. Because chimps must be introduced in social groups of 25 to 30 chimps, the relocation process has taken years. However, all of the remaining chimps in New Mexico are expected to be relocated to Florida by next year. Another group of 10 is scheduled to arrive Friday, Romero said.
It costs $2,500 to relocate one chimp, which can slow down the relocation process.
Romero said the newly arrived 10 are doing great and enjoying their newfound freedom, as well as being reunited with chimp friends that were relocated from New Mexico before them. Until he arrived at the sanctuary, Scotty would eat only apples, bananas and monkey chow. He now eats carrots and loves energy bars, Romero said.
While some chimps adjust rather quickly to their new environment, others take time.
Sanctuary director Jen Feurestein said about 10 percent of the chimps at the sanctuary have behavioral problems and emotional difficulties. Feurestein knows what life is like for chimps in research laboratories. She worked as a caregiver at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University in Georgia for five years before joining Save the Chimps.
"When I first started working in a laboratory, I wasn't opposed to biomedical research on monkeys, apes or any other animals," she said. "But after working in a lab and seeing what they go through and how much they suffer, over time I became opposed to the idea. When I was working at Yerkes, it became very difficult for me. So, to give them this wide-open space, to give them family groups, is incredibly rewarding."