KEITHVILLE, La. — When Michelle Reininger went to bed on June 15, she wasn’t worried about the weather. The last time she checked, the forecast had called for scattered showers. But in the middle of the night, an emergency alert blared on her phone: a severe thunderstorm warning. Winds were expected to reach 80 mph. People should take cover in their homes. “I thought: Is this a joke?” she recalled.
Ten minutes later, she lost power as the storm tore through.
By 5 a.m., the worst had passed. Reininger dressed quickly in the dark. She needed to go check on her charges: the more than 300 residents of Chimp Haven, the chimpanzee sanctuary nearby, where she served as the colony director.
As soon as she left her home, the storm’s toll became clear to her. “Everywhere I went, there was a tree across the road or power lines down,” Reininger said. She and her colleagues, who were also making their way to work, soon discovered that a tree was blocking the main road to the sanctuary.
The group gathered at a convenience store. As they formulated a plan, Reininger received a text message from the maintenance supervisor, who had found an alternate route into Chimp Haven. Trees were down not only on roads, the supervisor said, but a large pine tree had fallen in one of the chimpanzee habitats. The upper branches were resting atop the 18-foot wall surrounding the enclosure, creating a ramp that the chimps could use to escape.
For their own safety, and the safety of others, the chimpanzees needed to be secured inside immediately. “It had to be done now,” Reininger said. “There was no time.”
Sounding the alarm
Chimp Haven is a retirement home for research chimpanzees, including many owned or supported by the National Institutes of Health. Before arriving in Keithville, many were used in research on HIV or hepatitis; others were involved in studies that focused on cognition or behavior. The sanctuary, which sits on 200 forested acres, aims to provide the chimps with a tranquil place to live out their days.
But extreme weather poses an increasing threat to that peace. “It’s been so weird the last few years,” Reininger said. “The weather just — it’ll come at you.”
In recent years, the area has been hit by torrential rains and hurricane-force winds. Tornadoes have spun through with disconcerting frequency; in December, two people died after one touched down in Keithville. The danger is expected to grow as climate change supercharges storms, making hurricanes more intense and heavy downpours more frequent. Droughts, floods, wildfires and heat waves are increasing threats.
So, Chimp Haven is now running extreme-weather practice drills to teach the chimps to take shelter inside, quickly, when employees sound the alarm. Being able to recall the chimps on command will help the sanctuary to secure them inside before a storm hits, keeping them safe — and keeping them from escaping, if new opportunities suddenly appear.
During a recent winter storm, for instance, the moats that serve as natural barriers began to freeze. “We could have an escape situation if chimps walked over,” said Rana Smith, president and CEO of Chimp Haven. “Or the ice breaks and they fall into the water, which would be an unfortunate situation.”
The sanctuary has 30 social groups each living in its own designated space, and some emergencies might require only some groups to be secured indoors. So Chimp Haven has assigned a unique auditory cue to each group being trained. “Which has led to us searching far and wide on Amazon for a lot of different types of sounds,” said Jordan Garbarino, the training program supervisor. A ringing cowbell means that Flora’s group needs to hustle inside, for example, while a blaring bicycle alarm means the chimps in Daisy’s group should take shelter.
Trainers begin by desensitizing the chimps to the sound, doling out bananas, Cheerios or other treats as it plays. Then, they move the snacks inside. Chimps who come indoors when they hear the alarm will find “forage” — a snack mix containing popcorn, peanuts and sunflower seeds — and receive another treat, such as a Popsicle. Once the animals are reliably coming inside on cue, employees begin closing and locking the doors. Then they train the chimps to complete the process faster and faster.
Five groups, which include a total of 65 chimps, are in different stages of training. The 19 members of Flora’s group were the first to become fully trained, but they still regularly practice the recall to keep their skills sharp.
During a routine drill a few days before the June thunderstorm, the chimps showed what they could do. Clara Loesche, an animal care specialist, climbed onto the roof of a low-slung, concrete building. From this rooftop perch, the 5-acre, tree-filled habitat that Flora’s group called home looked nearly empty.
Then, Loesche began ringing the cowbell. Suddenly, chimps emerged from the woods, gamboling across the grassy lawn and clambering into the adjoining buildings. Loesche descended the stairs, looked at her watch, and brought a walkie-talkie to her mouth. “Ten seconds until doors close,” she said. Precisely 10 seconds later, she slid a big metal bolt shut.
“That’s wonderful!” she exclaimed, in a singsong voice. Less than two minutes had passed since she had begun ringing the bell, and 18 of the 19 chimps were secured. The only holdout was the eponymous Flora, a timid 41-year-old who had been slow to take to the training. She had been performing well in recent months, Loesche said, but today she had dawdled by the door, hesitant to step inside.
The social dynamics
If the weather can be unpredictable, so can the chimpanzees. Like their human cousins, chimps are intelligent and idiosyncratic, and the recall training requires juggling many personalities, preferences and needs.
Sometimes, this means accommodating dietary quirks — vegetable-loving Betsy turns up her nose at some fruit rewards — and keeping tabs on shifting preferences. “Like, ‘Who likes blue juice today? Who likes grape juice?’” said Rebekah Lewis, Chimp Haven’s director of behavior. “I have three children, so for me, it’s very similar.”
Some of the chimps are more food-motivated than others. A few have been known to try taking shelter in two buildings, running into one and then back outside and into another, in order to receive two treats. Others are more difficult to entice. Arden, a particularly outdoorsy adolescent who is starting to assert her independence, sometimes declines to come inside. “They all understand what we’re asking, but they don’t necessarily choose to come in every time,” Loesche said.
Some chimps require an individualized training approach. Thirty-five-year-old Sheena is deaf and cannot hear auditory cues, so trainers are teaching her to come inside when they display a bright-orange Frisbee. But a visual cue doesn’t travel the way that sound does. So before they can recall Sheena, who lives in a sprawling outdoor habitat, employees have to find her.
“And she could be anywhere,” Garbarino said. “One day we had to drive down to the moat, and she was really at kind of the furthest point.” But as soon as they flashed the Frisbee, she high-tailed it back to the bedrooms. “I could have wept,” Garbarino recalled.
Employees must also keep tabs on the animals’ complex and ever-evolving social dynamics. Sometimes they can harness these relationships, deploying a cooperative chimp to encourage a more reluctant friend. “Sometimes we’ll send out another chimp to go get that chimp to come in, like, ‘No, no, no, you’re making unwise decisions; let’s go inside,’” Reininger said.
But often, these dynamics pose real challenges. Tensions can run high when valuable resources (say, Popsicles) are being distributed. Lower-ranking chimps are sometimes wary of coming inside with more dominant chimps, who might steal or pick a fight over the rewards.
That may have been why low-ranking Flora did not come inside during the June practice drill. “She doesn’t have super high-ranked friends,” Loesche said. “So, that can make her feel a little unsure sometimes.”
On that particular afternoon, they decided to let Flora linger outside. But had there been a real threat, they might have coaxed her in by offering a safe, private room or even better treats. “In an actual emergency,” Garbarino said, “we would go to great lengths to get them inside.”
A scare, then relief
Three days later, the thunderstorm, and the damage it left behind, became that emergency. With news of the fallen tree, a potential escape route for the chimps, several employees set off for the sanctuary, climbing through the tree that was blocking the road.
Chimp Haven had been hit hard. The forested walkway at the entrance was damaged. Trees had been snapped in half, and branches littered the ground. The power was out and would remain so for six sweltering days.
Employees rushed to the habitat, unsure whether the 15 chimps who lived there, all members of Daisy’s group, were still safely inside after “not knowing where they had been all night,” Loesche said, “if they were lost, if they had been struck by lightning.” Staff members had dart guns at the ready just in case they spotted a chimpanzee that had escaped.
They did a quick head count. After a brief scare — at first, they had trouble locating Betsy — they were relieved to find all animals accounted for.
“And then came the next round of adrenaline,” Loesche said.
The tree was an ongoing hazard, and the chimps needed to be secured inside until it was removed. It was exactly the kind of situation that the recall training had been designed for, but it would not be a textbook recall.
Daisy’s group was still acclimating to the wailing alarm that served as their auditory cue. Trainers had not yet laid out the full recall procedure for the chimps or run them through a complete drill. Today was not the day to try. “We didn’t want to waste time making the noise when that isn’t as established yet,” Loesche said. “And it was such an unknown situation.”
Fortunately, most of the chimps had gathered near the building, so staff members decided to lure them in with food. They began scattering forage and chimp chow, which drew some chimps inside. One caregiver dashed off to grab frozen grapes and strawberries, which attracted more animals. Popsicles won over the remaining stragglers.
Except for two: Destiny and Jeff Lebowski. Both chimps were known for being reluctant to come inside and had been utterly unmoved by the treats. So, the team switched tactics.
The buildings and enclosures at Chimp Haven are connected by a network of elevated mesh-enclosed passageways, or chutes, which are used to move chimps to different locations. Most chimps love using the chutes, which are typically left closed and locked. “When you give them access to an area they’re typically denied access to, that becomes very exciting to them,” Reininger said.
Perhaps Destiny and Jeff Lebowski would be willing to scamper into a chute? They showed little interest in the first two that employees opened for them. But the third chute, which led to a yard inhabited by another chimp group, proved irresistible.
“They went in immediately,” Loesche said. Employees closed the chute door, temporarily locking them inside. Finally, all 15 chimps had been secured.
But it had taken considerable improvisation — and about an hour of effort. The recall training is meant to make the process quicker and easier the next time the weather wreaks havoc. “That would definitely be the goal and the hope,” Loesche said.
And so, the drills continue. Since the storm, Destiny and Jeff Lebowski have been more reliable in training sessions, regularly abandoning their outdoor playgrounds, however begrudgingly, and hauling themselves indoors. “They would rather not,” Loesche said. “But sometimes, we need them to.”