WINAMAC, Ind. — Benjamin looks longingly at Caitlin from a distance on a recent sunny afternoon. He's never had a lady of his own, but he's in love with Caitlin.
But Benjamin will never get to be with Caitlin because she already has a partner of her own. So all Benjamin can do for now is sit and watch Caitlin with his hand resting on the metal mesh fence that separates them.
Benjamin and Caitlin are just two of the 16 baboons rescued from the pet trade and lab testing that now call the Peaceable Primate Sanctuary home. The sanctuary has been open for a little more than a year now in a rural area around Winamac, about 1 hour and 20 minutes southwest of South Bend.
The baboons are partly separated by species, which is why Caitlin and Benjamin aren't together. Caitlin and her partner Gondwana are Red baboons, Benjamin is a Hamadryas. The two largest groups are made up of Olive baboons.
The baboons are also separated by which animals get along the best, because like humans, some baboons just don't like each other.
The sanctuary was 16 years in the making, Director Scott Kubisch said. Kubisch was watching videos one day and came upon a video of a baboon in a small cage in a research lab, he said, so he thought there was something more he could do to help primates.
He decided on building a sanctuary, but at first he was thinking of rescuing chimpanzees. While chimps used to be a preferred choice for medical testing, Kubisch said, he found out that in recent years there are far more baboons being used.
"The estimate is there are about 6,000 to 7,000 baboons in U.S. research labs," he said. "There are a lot of them."
When he had the idea more than a decade ago, Kubisch was still working at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. But he got to work trying to secure permits, grants and a nonprofit status, and it took a long time to raise the money to start.
Kubisch landed on Winamac because his family had a farm in nearby English Lake, so he knew the area. He also wanted something rural, he said, because many people probably don't want a primate sanctuary as a neighbor.
A few of Kubisch's baboons came from the pet trade, but a majority are from medical testing labs across the U.S. Baboons are used for drug testing, cancer research, bone marrow and organ studies, "a little bit of everything," Kubisch said.
Giving a tour last week of the sanctuary, Kubisch showed a small cage he estimated to be about 4 feet by 3 feet. It's the typical size labs use to house primates, keeping them there most of their lives, he said. The small cage is also legal under U.S. law.
"You're taking a social animal that wants to be with its own kind," he said, "and you're putting it in a cage where it can't do anything."
But thanks to places like the Peaceable Primate Sanctuary, research labs are starting to give their subjects a better life when they can no longer use the primates. Before, it was very common for labs to kill the animals when they could no longer be used, Kubisch said, but now labs seek out sanctuaries.
"The labs are seeing this is the best thing to do," he said. "They don't want to put them to sleep, but there weren't really other options until sanctuaries started opening. There's a big need for this and we only foresee the need to grow."
The Peaceable Primate Sanctuary is currently the only baboon-specific sanctuary in the United States. There is a sanctuary in Texas that does have some baboons, Kubisch said, but it is not designed just for baboons.
But no matter if the baboons are coming from a lab or were a former pet, it takes a while for them to adjust to their new lives, he said. Many had never wandered outdoors before and were hesitant at first of their new living space. Most of the baboons also didn't have the muscle strength to climb at first, Kubisch said, because they were kept in such small cages their entire lives.
The animals raised as pets also don't know how to be baboons, he said. The two newest and youngest additions to the sanctuary were taken from their mothers at only 7 days old. Now coming up on 3 years, the sanctuary is the seventh home the two have known. Although the older baboons give the two youngsters a little slack for their age, Kubisch said, the two have never had adults to reprimand them for their behavior.
And then there's Babbles, who at 32 is the oldest baboon at the sanctuary. Having spent the majority of her life as a pet, she will never be able to be around other baboons.
She has a caring face and will look a person right in the eyes — an action seen as a threat in the baboon world. Because she didn't know social cues, the other baboons were too aggressive with Babbles and she was never able to fit in.
"You can never give them the life they would have with their own kind," Kubisch said.
But now they all have room to roam and climb, toys to play with and their favorite snacks. Obviously they like fruits and vegetables, but they also love egg noddles and dried pasta and two of the baboons are obsessed with mustard.
The Peaceable Primate Sanctuary sits on 80 acres of land and the ultimate plan is to expand to house 200 to 300 animals.
Kubisch has about 12 baboons on a waiting list, but until they build more indoor space they can't take in more animals. With Benjamin sharing his enclosure with only one other male, Kubisch said, they will likely be able to secure a couple of females to put in with them.
But Kubisch is working on the next capital campaign to raise the money for more indoor housing and is working with a university to build housing for its primates.
The main focus now is building their current residents more outdoor space. The sanctuary is currently building a one-acre, open-top enclosure that will be split into two areas. This will give the baboons much more room to move around and forage for food, something they naturally do in the wild.
The project costs about $30,000, which is being paid for with two different grants. The current indoor and closed-top outdoor spaces cost about $22,000.
"It's much better than what they have been living in," Kubisch said about the current living space, "but we want it to be even better."
Source: South Bend Tribune, http://bit.ly/2tZQaVY
Information from: South Bend Tribune, http://www.southbendtribune.com