Over the past century, countless medical advancements came thanks to the lives of chimpanzees—they were live tested for everything from polio vaccines to spacecrafts. There have been scientists who have said, “sometimes our lives literally depend on them.”
In 1974, three chimpanzees—Swing, Sparky, and Doll—were no longer needed once a vaccine for hepatitis had been found. Researchers wanted to know if these chimps, who had only known life in a lab, were capable of living a normal life out in nature.
Linda Koebner, then only a 23-year-old graduate student, helped acclimate these chimps to a Florida refuge.
This would be the chimps’ first glimpse of the sun after six years.
“They were terrified of getting out of the security of their transport cage, whether it was afraid to step on the grass—they hadn’t been on anything but hard bars for years—or just the wind and the sun. They just huddled in the doorways and wouldn’t come out,” Koebner said.
But over time, she was able to coax them out.
“Some of them had never tasted freedom since they were infants on their mothers’ backs, and they were in these little boxes for years and years,” Koebner said.
This was the first experiment of its kind—no one knew if it would work or be worthwhile. But Koebner spent every day over the next four years with these chimps—and it worked.
They parted ways and over the next 18 years, Koebner had absolutely no contact with the chimps.
After 18 years, Koebner went back to the Florida refuge to reunite with her friends. Some of them were no longer there anymore, and there was no telling how the chimps would react to her, now a virtual stranger.
But they had not forgotten her. She approached gently, calling out to Swing and Doll—and they came over to give her a hug.
“These chimpanzees have taught me about resilience. All of these have gone through tremendous adversity but they’re forgiving and they’re whole again,” Koebner said.
She is now working on creating a similar refuge in Louisiana.
Filmmaker Allison Argo created the award-winning documentary “Wisdom of the Wild” on the subject for PBS. Watch an excerpt of it below: