Vanilla the Chimp Was Born in a Lab. at 28, She Saw the Open Sky.

Save the Chimps
Vanilla the chimpanzee in her new habitat.

Vanilla looked hesitant to step outside. The moment she did, she stopped and stared upward, mouth open as if in awe, at the sky above her.

It was the first time the 28-year-old chimpanzee had seen the sky without peering through metal bars.

A video of the chimp staring slack-jawed as she emerged into her new habitat for the first time went viral after it was shared last month by Save the Chimps, a Fort Pierce, Fla., sanctuary.

The clip captured the joyous conclusion to Vanilla’s long, turbulent journey through several other homes – none of which allowed her an unobstructed view of the sky, Save the Chimps CEO Ana Paula Tavares told The Washington Post. To Tavares, the response to Vanilla’s milestone was unsurprising. It underscored the similarities between chimpanzees and humans and the urgency of rescuing chimps like Vanilla from mistreatment, she said.

“We’re similar not just physically, but emotionally,” Tavares said. “So it has been, I think, really easy for people to recognize her joy and empathize with her story.”

Vanilla was born in a New York biomedical research lab in 1994, according to Save the Chimps. She was one of many chimpanzees raised in captivity in the United States for medical research, a practice that was phased out by the National Institutes of Health in 2015.

Vanilla was housed in isolation in an enclosure seven feet tall and suspended like a birdcage, according to Save the Chimps. She underwent numerous invasive procedures, including liver biopsies, Tavares said. Chimpanzees share over 98 percent of their DNA with humans, which made them valuable subjects for medical research – but also meant they felt the effects of an isolated upbringing just as keenly as people would, Tavares sad.

“These are all very social beings like us,” Tavares said. “They live in large social groups and, like us, they learn from each other.”

Vanilla wouldn’t get that chance early in her life as she grew up in the New York lab. In the late 90s, she was transferred with several other chimpanzees to Wildlife WayStation, a sanctuary in California, according to Save the Chimps.

But life there was only a slight reprieve. The facility was threatened several times by wildfires, Tavares said, and though Vanilla was finally placed into a family with four other chimps, she still had only a small, bare enclosure to call home. If she had a view of the sky, it was through metal mesh, Tavares added.

“She lived in a small enclosure with no grass, [a] cement floor, a chain-link fence all around and above her,” Tavares said.

Wildlife WayStation closed in 2019 because of financial difficulties, kicking off a lengthy search to rehouse Vanilla and almost 500 other animals staying there, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The agency, which cared for the animals in the interim, had particular difficulty finding new homes for the sanctuary’s 42 chimpanzees because shelters struggled with the influx of other chimps released from medical research, according to a news release. It finished relocating Wildlife WayStation’s animals in December.

Vanilla was among the final seven chimpanzees to be re-homed, according to Save the Chimps. After arriving at the nonprofit’s Florida facility, she underwent a 60-day quarantine before being matched with other chimpanzees and integrated into a larger family – an often lengthy process, Tavares said, that involves researchers carefully observing chimpanzees’ personalities and interactions with others.

Despite her long journey to Florida, Vanilla adapted quickly, Tavares said.

“Vanilla’s personality is quite extraordinary,” she said. “She’s very friendly, very loyal to her family … but Vanilla’s also very curious and adventurous.”

That showed when Vanilla completed the integration into her larger family and was finally released into her home in June.

Now, Tavares has been able to watch Vanilla and the rest of her adopted family grow into their surroundings – a three-acre island with swaths of bright green grass, trees and wooden structures to play on – and form friendships and bonds. A few of them gathered on Thursday as Tavares watched from her office, which overlooks the island.

“They’re out enjoying the nice Florida afternoon,” she said with a chuckle.

Tavares added that she hoped Vanilla’s viral moment would inspire more awareness about chimpanzee conservation.

“Vanilla, I think, has helped to remind people all over the world recently that we all, humans and chimpanzees, deserve freedom and nature and these very essential needs,” Tavares said.