Chimpanzee Experience Continues Long After Famous CWU Chimps Have Left

CLE ELUM, WA. -- It's been almost two years since the last two chimpanzees were moved from the world famous Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University. But that hasn't stopped students from getting some one-on-one experience with chimps. 

It's breakfast for 7 chimpanzees at the Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest. For Sandra, this is a dream come true. 

"It's everything I've ever wanted since I was 10," Sandra Casti, a graduate student at Central Washington University said.

Sandra's first realized this dream while watching childhood cartoons. 

"Do you remember the show the Wild Thornberry's on Nickelodeon?" Casti said. "So I was obsessed with that show as a kid and I wanted to be Eliza Thornberry and I would say that's what I'm going to do when I grow up. I'm going to talk to animals. And I still have friends that knew me back then, and they say, you're doing it. You're Eliza Thornberry. You're living your ten year old dream."

Sandra gets to feed, clean and just simply spend time with the chimps once a week. After a year of interacting with them, she finds that every chimp has a different personality. 

"Nege is a sassy lady," Sandra said. "She's the queen of the sanctuary, we call her. She's the one that was clapping for me to give her the peanuts. They're so like us, and yet they're so different, but it's just amazing to have that inter-species connection."

It's a connection that almost didn't happen. In 2013 Central Washington University sent their last two chimps from their world famous Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute to a sanctuary in Canada, effectively ending the opportunity for on campus one-on-one contact for students. 

Diana Goodrich, director of the Cle Elum sanctuary just 20 minutes away, and a Central graduate herself, saw the news, and stepped in to help. 

"To be able to perhaps create those experiences for other people, I'm very happy to be doing that," Goodrich told NBC Right Now. 

Goodrich helped formalize a program that now allows 8 interns from Central to get class credit working with these chimps, who were saved from horrific conditions in a new mexico laboratory. 

"It's been really nice to become friends with each of them and build relationships," Sandra said. "Like just today, I think I got my first kiss on the hand from Jaime, which I don't think I've ever gotten before."

Jaime is also the chimp who liked my shoes earlier, well later in the day they didn't amuse her so much. So she sent us a nice chimp message in spit form. 

"That was like a, 'hey OK, I'm done with you filming here now,' spit," Sandra said. "But hey it could have been worse."

For Sandra, it couldn't be any better working with her friends every time she clocks in for her internship. 

"I think the thing I like the most is just to be around them and to know that," Sandra said. "That they're OK with me being here and my presence helps them." 

In the future, Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest hopes to expand their facility here in Cle Elum, and maybe bring in some more chimps to interact with the students.

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