Skip to content

Celebrating two years of sanctuary for Hercules and Leo

By Courtney Fern

This week we are celebrating the two-year anniversary of our first nonhuman animal clients finding freedom after years of imprisonment and exploitation.

At Project Chimps sanctuary in the Blue Ridge Mountains of north Georgia, chimpanzees Hercules and Leo have made great strides in their recovery from the traumas inflicted on them by Stony Brook University, where, when we filed a chimpanzee rights suit on their behalf, they were kept in a basement lab and used in locomotion research that involved frequent administrations of general anesthesia and the insertion of fine-wire electrodes into their muscles.

At this age, had Hercules and Leo lived in the wild, they would have still been in close contact with their families, freely exploring their environment and constantly playing with and learning from other chimpanzees. Our friends at Project Chimps tell us they are adjusting well to a life in which they have regained their freedom and human beings are treating them with the utmost care and respect.

Leo at Project Chimps. Photo: Crystal Alba/Project Chimps
Hercules at Project Chimps. Photo: Crystal Alba/Project Chimps

When the NhRP last visited Hercules and Leo, they had only been at Project Chimps for a few months and were just beginning to explore the forested outdoor habitat. Now, they have fully integrated into a large group comprised of fourteen chimpanzees, both male and female (the New Iberia Research Center, which “leased” Hercules and Leo to Stony Brook, separated males from females). Project Chimps has reported that Hercules has taken on the role of leader and provides emotional support to all the chimpanzees. He is friends with everyone and has become the natural mediator, breaking up any arguments that arise.

Binah, Ray, Kivuli, and Hercules at Project Chimps. Photo: Crystal Alba/Project Chimps

Leo, on the other hand, understandably took much longer to get accustomed to new group members and having vastly greater freedom than he did in the lab. Slowly, with the reassurance of his caregivers and friends, he is gaining confidence and exploring more of all that his new home has to offer, including making friends of his choosing.

Leo at Project Chimps. Photo: Crystal Alba/Project Chimps
Binah hugs Leo while other members of their social group look on. Leo has taken longer than Hercules to heal from the traumas he endured as a research subject but he is making steady progress. Photo: Crystal Alba/Project Chimps

Since Hercules and Leo became the first nonhuman animals in the world to have a habeas corpus hearing to determine the lawfulness of their imprisonment, a judge on New York’s highest court has written, in response to our chimpanzee rights cases, that chimpanzees’ treatment under the law constitutes:

“a manifest injustice … To treat a chimpanzee as if he or she had no right to liberty protected by habeas corpus is to regard the chimpanzee as entirely lacking independent worth, as a mere resource for human use, a thing the value of which consists exclusively in its usefulness to others. Instead, we should consider whether a chimpanzee is an individual with inherent value who has the right to be treated with respect.”

Leo at Project Chimps. Photo: Crystal Alba/Project Chimps

A deep respect for chimpanzees’ innate value and need for freedom is a founding principle of Project Chimps, making possible transformations that will surely continue in the years ahead. We are incredibly grateful to Project Chimps for making it possible for Hercules, Leo, and many other chimpanzees to heal and live freely.

Visit Project Chimps’ website to read about the first time Hercules and Leo went outside and learn more about the sanctuary. You can follow Hercules and Leo’s progress on Project Chimps’ Instagram and Facebook pages, where they often post updates, photos, and videos of their chimpanzee residents.

Sign up to receive the latest updates on our mission

Find out about opportunities to get involved, breaking news in our cases and campaigns, and more.