ALAMOGORDO, N.M. — The Great Chimp Migration has come to an end.
Almost 300 chimpanzees have moved from their cages in New Mexico at the former Coulston Research Facility on LaVelle Road in Alamogordo to Florida islands built especially for them.
Starting small scale in 2005, the migration was the goal of Save the Chimps founder Carole Noon, who obtained the facility from its previous research-minded owners.
On Sept. 16, 2002, Noon took over the care of 266 chimpanzees and 61 monkeys from the Alamogordo Coulston Foundation facilities. The primates range in age from 2 to 40 years old.
The monkeys were moved out first. They were relocated to a sanctuary in Texas.
In February 2006, Save the Chimps had obtained its own rig, a vehicle built especially for them to carry the animals to Florida in groups of 10. The first group of Coulston chimps went on the road.
Last week, the last of the Save the Chimps animals began their 37-hour journey to the 200-acre sanctuary prepared for them in Florida.
Taz, Sarah, Bart, Bradley, Marisha, Alari, Guilder, Howard, Torian and Roady moved away from New Mexico to join the others in their family group in Florida.
"This is certainly the end of an era," said Jen Feuerstein, who was chosen as Save the Chimps director after Noon died in 2009.
Feuerstein said leaving New Mexico, where she spent the better part of eight years with Save the Chimps, is bittersweet for her. She has become close to many of the facility's staff members who have chosen not to move to Florida.
"It's amazing it's all coming together and that it's all wrapped up," she said.
Jocelyn Bezner has been a veterinarian with Save the Chimps for eight years and was on hand Monday to make sure everyone was ready to get on the truck. She said the experience has been amazing for her.
"What Dr. Noon instilled in me is to get to know the chimps," Bezner said. "Most primate veterinarians are just there to anesthetize and do procedures. I am there all the time. They (the chimps) know me. Most forgive me and appreciate me."
She has seen the transition in the animals from being research chimps to being introduced to a more comfortable environment and family groups.
"Everything changes - body language, hair, personality," Bezner said. "They are very vocal. They express their emotions. Surprisingly, for the noise and strength, there is small amount of injury (when the chimps get into altercations)."
Bezner said she gets to spend a lot of time playing with the chimps.
"I love them," she said.
She said Save the Chimps keeps up Noon's legacy and love for those under its care.
"She (Noon) really saw everything from a chimp's perspective," Bezner said. "There was a paralyzed chimp and Dr. Noon's question was, 'How am I going to keep her entertained?' There was no thought of having her euthanized."
Noon considered the chimpanzees to be "people," and the staff at the sanctuary carry on her tradition. Bezner and Feuerstein's voices lighten up as they chat about individual chimps and how they behave.
The drive to Florida from New Mexico is fascinating for the chimps.
"They have a good time on the road," Feuerstein said.
Once in Florida the chimps will be reunited with the rest of their family group at the sanctuary, located near Fort Pearce.
"There are always challenges," Feuerstein said. "We will do what we can to make their lives even better."
Feuerstein believes all the chimpanzees currently in research will be relieved of that burden and placed in sanctuaries.
"Eventually there will be no more (chimps in research)," she said. "But it won't happen in my lifetime. As long as there is need, I believe Save the Chimps will be here."
The organization is run entirely on donations. Feuerstein said they have been lucky that people continue to be compassionate and giving. For more about the chimps and where they are going, visit www.savethechimps.org.
"We have a responsibility to the chimps to do the best we can for them," she said. "There is something about the chimps here - what they went through and their stories -- that touches people."