Even after two decades, Linda Koebner was greeted with hugs and smiles by the apes she taught to live outdoors.
This is the emotional moment chimpanzees Swing and Doll see their saviour for the first time 20 years after they were rescued from the cages of a research laboratory. Visiting the island in south Florida on which they now live, Linda Koebner was greeted by their outstretched arms and huge grins after two decades being separated. The animal behaviourist had returned to their sanctuary where the chimps now live as part of a US documentary called The Wisdom of the Wild. In 1996, while still a undergraduate at university, Linda helped rescue them from the cages before spending hundreds of hours over fours year teaching them them how to live in the world. The chimps, who had been living in a hepatitis research lab, were no longer needed as a vaccine had been found. Koebner, the founder the non-profit chimpanzee sanctuary Chimp Haven in Louisiana, taught Swing and Doll how to fend for themselves and eased them back into open living conditions.
One of the hardest tasks was getting them out of the cages. She says it was difficult for them to embrace the outdoors. “They were terrified to get out of the security of their transport cage,” Koebner said. “Whether it was afraid to step on the grass, they hadn’t been on anything but hard bars for years, or just the feel of the wind and the sun. “They just huddled in the doorways and wouldn’t come out.” In the documentary, Koebner is seen taking a boat over over to where the chimps live. As she nears the other side, one of the apes is seen coming to greet her.
Swing is then seen holding out a hand to Koebner from the dock, before cracking a huge smile – at which point Doll then excitedly runs over. The welcome leaves the researcher overcome with tears. “Do you remember me?” she asks. The apes beam with delight at seeing her as she says: ’”It’s been so long. Oh, you look great.” In January 1974, the chimps hadn’t seen sunlight for six years. Koebner ensured they were given the opportunity to run from their cold, steel cages onto the grass and too rebuild their lives.
“Chimpanzees have provided us so much in this world,” Koebner says in the film. “So much knowledge about ourselves, about our social lives, about our dispositions, because they are so much like us as beings. “These chimpanzees have taught me about resilience. “All of these have gone through such tremendous adversity, and yet they’re forgiving, and they’re whole again.”
As chimpanzees share 98.8% of human DNA, they have long been used as test subjects for drugs and vaccines. This experimentation only stopped in America last year, when they were were listed as an endangered species . But despite the ban, there are still hundreds of chimps living in labs, waiting to be officially retired to a sanctuary. Koebner founded Chimp Haven in 1995 as a refuge for ‘lab chimps’ who were no longer needed for testing.