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01/14/2013 07:47 am ET Updated Mar 16, 2013

Windy Oaks Animal Farm's Six Chimpanzees Face Uncertain Future

When Toby the chimp arrived at Curtis Shepperson's home near Mechanicsville, he was 6 weeks old and weighed 7 pounds. He was adorable.

Curtis and Bea Shepperson dressed him in clothes from GapKids. They fed him with a bottle. He lived in their house and ate breakfast at the table.

That was 1997.

Now Toby is 15 years old and weighs around 150 pounds. His home is an outdoor enclosure the size of a small house. Five other chimpanzees share the space, including Sierra, who arrived as a baby in 2000. The Sheppersons love them dearly, but they don't get close anymore.

Adult chimps can be dangerous. Therein lies the problem.

When two chimpanzees escaped from Shepperson's Windy Oaks Animal Farm in July 2010, Hanover County officials became alarmed. An adult pet chimpanzee had horrified the nation just a year earlier by mauling a woman in Connecticut. One of the Hanover chimpanzees remained loose overnight and, although no one was harmed, a woman called authorities to report the chimp was on her porch.

County authorities discovered that Shepperson lacked county permits for four of his six chimpanzees, though he had authorization for all six from state and federal authorities. The Board of Supervisors gave him a two-year deadline to get rid of the extra four, and then in December extended the deadline by six months and raised the possibility of euthanasia as a final resort.

Finding a new home for a group of chimpanzees isn't easy, though. Animal experts recommend that they remain together, because they've formed a family.

Steve Ross, director of Project ChimpCARE at the Lincoln Park Zoo and manager of the 259 chimpanzees living in accredited North American zoos, visited Windy Oaks on Nov. 2, 2010, to assess the situation after the escape. In his report, he recommended that the group be maintained together as a troop of six at the current facility if the owners followed his recommendations for improvements, which Shepperson has done.

"I can say with great assurance that there are not currently any options for moving some or all of these chimpanzees that would not result in considerable decline in their welfare," Ross wrote in 2010.

The best outcome for the chimpanzees would be eventual transfer of all six to a chimpanzee sanctuary, however, Ross added in a telephone interview. That's the path that the county prefers.

"I've always been very clear with Mr. Shepperson in my discussions with him that there's no doubt in my mind that they would be better off in a larger space and a more complex space, and they would be better off at a sanctuary," Ross said.

"Of course, that's where it gets complicated. Those spaces don't exist at the current time."

Shepperson can't bear the thought of sending away all his chimpanzees.

"Toby was raised with my children and with my grandchildren," Shepperson said. "He's just like a child to us. It's the same with Sierra. She also was raised with my children. You don't take your children and just throw them out. We are going to keep the two and not let them go. If the county don't like it, they will have to put down the other four.

"I think they're using euthanization to pressure me. I think that's a terrible thing to even think about killing four healthy chimpanzees. All of them should work with me for me to keep them, or find a place for four of them."

Three of his chimpanzees came to him on a breeding loan, but the owner lost her license and is unable to take them back. His other chimpanzee was rescued from the film industry. He has county permits for Toby and Sierra.

Many sanctuaries require people to surrender all of their chimpanzees when accepting any of them, said Jen Feuerstein, sanctuary director of Save the Chimps in Florida and chair of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance. She participated in a conference call with Hanover officials about the Shepperson chimps.

"Our policy is to only accept chimpanzees from individuals who are getting out of the chimpanzee business," she said. "In most cases, it means an individual must turn over all the chimpanzees. From the chimpanzees' perspective it is certainly better. They're a family and it would be unfortunate to be separated. If four chimps move and two chimps remain, if one of them became ill or passed away, it would leave one chimp alone. That's also not an ideal situation."

She said her sanctuary has allowed some previous owners to visit or become volunteers so they could see how their chimps are doing.

Chimpanzees live in large groups in the wild, so sanctuaries typically create spaces for 20 or more when they build additions. At Save the Chimps, a series of man-made islands keep the groups separate and secure because chimps can't swim.

The enriching value of other chimpanzees is one of the most important considerations in relocating them, Ross said. The Hanover group of six is small, "but they have a good social life right now. A solution that breaks that social group up is not a good solution.

"People have talked about four moving to a sanctuary and two remaining. That doesn't solve any of the problems. It downgrades the welfare of all six and doesn't solve any of the safety concerns. Two chimpanzees are just as dangerous as six. The group has to be kept together, and that has to be the No. 1 concern."

Ross said an accredited facility spends millions to build a chimpanzee facility that is secure while also offering an enriching environment for the animals.

"It's a scary number that I think people are not prepared for," he said. "To provide an enclosure where you can house them safely costs millions."

Shepperson said he has spent $200,000 to $300,000 on his enclosure, building it himself over many years to save money. All of the metal pieces are welded together rather than bolted together for additional security, and he has it checked yearly to make sure the structure remains tight.

The escape happened because painters who had been working on the outside enclosure left a door unlocked when they finished. The Sheppersons released the chimps from their inside quarters without realizing the door was open. He said new procedures would prevent that from happening again.

Following Ross' recommendations, Shepperson has installed additional locks on the doors, created a vestibule, established written safety protocols, inserted a viewing pane in the steel door to the inside quarters and put bars on the windows. He said the only key to the enclosure is locked up inside his house.

The county is also better prepared to deal with an escape if it should happen again, said James P. Taylor, assistant county administrator. All animal control officers are certified now in tranquilizer capture.

"I think we feel better about our ability to respond if we were to have to, but there's still a risk there," he said.

Caring for a chimpanzee is also expensive. Ross estimates $750,000 as the average over a lifetime.

"Ideally private owners of chimpanzees who have to place them in sanctuaries should be financially responsible for the chimps," Feuerstein said. "The reality is these individuals do not necessarily have the resources for lifetime care."

The county, the sanctuary community and the Sheppersons are committed to finding a solution.

"I'm really hoping he'll do the right thing and let all of them go to a sanctuary. That's what they need and what they deserve," said Lisa Wathne, captive exotic animal specialist for the Humane Society of the United States.

From the county's perspective, the likelihood that the chimpanzees would be euthanized is small, Taylor said.

"I don't see that happening," he said. "We are going to continue to work hard on that and ask what Hanover can do to help Mr. Shepperson to relocate them. When it gets right down to it, I think the sanctuaries will find a place for them."

The "mile-high" solution would be to prevent private ownership of chimpanzees, Ross said.

"If he had not had the opportunity to purchase a chimpanzee in the first place, we would not be in this difficult place. As tragic as that event was in Connecticut, it certainly opened eyes to the real danger. People have realized that these are not cuddly pets. They are wild animals that need to be housed in safe conditions."

kcalos@timesdispatch.com

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