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Woman has emotional reunion with chimps she rescued from lab 25 years ago

Linda Koebner was a 23-year-old graduate student when she was asked to participate in a bold new project.

A hepatitis vaccine had been found, and certain chimpanzees who had sadly been used as guinea pigs to test the vaccine were no longer needed.

But now it was their chance to experience freedom that they had never experienced before.

It was Linda’s job to prepare a female named Swing, a young male named Sparky, and six-year-old Doll for life in the outside world.

Linda was hopeful that the chimps would thrive in their new environment and spoke of how these amazing creatures have benefited us humans.

“Chimpanzees have provided us with so much in this world. So much knowledge about ourselves, about our social lives, about our dispositions…” Linda said.

On a January morning, a small group of chimpanzees caught their first glimpse of the sun in over 6 years. But it wasn’t going to be an easy process.

“They were terrified to get out of the security of their transfer cage.” Linda recalled.

“Whether that 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.”

For the next 4 years, Linda spent every day with the chimps, watching over them and acting as a source of comfort whenever they needed it.

It was a unique experiment, as no one knew how the chimps would take to being back out in the open again.

“Over time we coaxed them, and Doll was right up the tree.” Linda said. “But some of the others had never tasted any kind of freedom since they were infants riding on their mother’s back, and they had been in these little boxes for years and years.”

Eventually, the chimps settled happily into their new home on an island in a sanctuary in Southern Florida.

25 years later, Linda was eager to pay a visit to see if they remembered her, and the sanctuary was happy to let her come back.

Doll and Swing were still at the sanctuary, and it had been 18 years Linda had had any contact with the two chimps face to face. Were they going to remember her?

As Linda boarded a boat to take her to the island, nobody knew how the chimps would react.

But as the boat approached, Swing sat right by the dock and waited eagerly for Linda to arrive. She seemed to remember something!

As soon as the boat reached the land, Swing’s face broke out into a huge smile and she reached out for Linda’s hand.

It was clear that Swing still remembered her, and the emotions of four difficult years overwhelmed Linda, who began to cry.

Sensing that she was upset, the sweet chimp didn’t hesitate to bring Linda into a hug- and next minute, another one of Linda’s old friends had arrived. It was Doll!

Doll hugged Linda too, and both chimps made noises as if they were crying themselves.

You can see the emotion on their faces, and they clearly remembered the woman who rescued them and spent so much time making sure they were going to be okay.

“These chimpanzees have taught me about resilience.” Linda said. “All of these have gone through such tremendous adversity, and yet they’re forgiving and they’re whole again.”

Amazingly, over 30 chimps have found refuge in this sanctuary in Southern Florida.

Each chimp arrived with a history, but here they’ve been given the chance to live out their days with others of their kind.

Inspired by the success of Doll and Swing, Linda is determined to provide homes for other chimpanzees in need.

“My dream is to replicate on a grander scale what we were able to do for the chimps that came to Lion Country with us… To give them the respect and the freedom to live out their lives. All animals are individuals and they have feelings and thoughts, and suffer the pain and the joy that we do.”

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