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Watch: Abused chimps live out retirement in peace at Catalonia sanctuary

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Ageing primates recover from their trauma and are rehabilitated by vets
Ageing primates recover from their trauma and are rehabilitated by vets -
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A sanctuary for abused chimpanzees and macaques in Girona, Catalonia, is allowing them to live out their retirement in peace.

Many residents of the Fundacion Mona rehabilitation centre were mistreated in their earlier lives as circus performers, television actors and domestic pets. Many spent years living in solitude in terrifying environments or inhumane conditions, born in the black market and owned illegally.

Many were separated from their mothers too early and never had the chance to establish social bonds. Now, they have a hard time understanding who they really are: apes or human beings.

At the sanctuary, the ageing primates recover from their trauma and are rehabilitated by a team of vets and biologists, who help the animals develop a more chimp-like repertoire of behaviours.

Almost eight years after his arrival, Tom is still adapting. He has a nervous disposition and gets especially excited around food. He was born around 1980, somewhere in Africa, and arrived at Mona in June 2011. He had been legally purchased in the 90s, along with a female, by the owners of a circus. He worked there until he was around 10 years old, and was then sold because he was no longer needed.

Tom then spent 20 years in a cage in a nearby village with two females, Coco and Bea, in an adjoining cage. But they had to be separated because Tom would sometimes attack them out of boredom and frustration.

Tom, Coco and Bea were the first three chimpanzees to arrive at Mona. They belong to one of two groups of chimps at the centre, and get along much better that they used to.

Olga Feliu is a veterinarian, and the co-founder and director of Fundacion Mona. She says her team works hard to ensure the chimps have a good life.

"What does it mean to be happy? I think that for a chimpanzee who has lived such a traumatic life – captured in the jungle and having their mother killed, spending an isolated life alongside an alien species – this right here could mean happiness to them. Why? Because they are able to decide whether to be here or over there. To have a social group of their own species to which they can relate. And they are being taken care of by such loving carers."

Victor was born in Mali in 1982 and arrived at Mona in May 2006. He was taken from his mother as a baby and sold in France as a pet. But he ended up in captivity in a public park in the city of Nancy, where he lived in solitude until the age of 24. People visiting the park would throw junk food and cigarettes at him.

When Victor first arrived, he was overweight and lacked muscular tone because of his inactive lifestyle. His physical condition was so bad he had to use his mouth to climb because his limbs were too weak. Victor had hardly ever seen other chimpanzees, and he found their company traumatic. It took three years before he was able to join the group.

All of the chimps here are ageing and the enclosures have been adapted to suit their needs.

"We had to put in special lower structures such as swings, so it's not so hard for them to climb. Ramps to reach their bedrooms. For Toto, who died at 57, we had to install a special handle so he could move around his cubicle despite his advanced age," says Feliu.

The rescue process can be long and complicated. Once Mona hears about a primate in an illegal or abusive situation, the team prepare permits so they can retrieve the animal and arrange appropriate means of transportation.

The road to recovery can also be a long one, as the animals often arrive at the sanctuary in poor physical and psychological condition. The first step is re-socialisation, as by nature primates are very gregarious. Re-socialisation is the only way to offer any captive primate a chance of normality.

Bongo was born in captivity in Valencia and arrived here when he was two years old. When he was rescued he was in a cage the size of a microwave and was in very bad shape – skinny, malnourished and traumatised. He was confiscated from his previous owners because his trainer – who used to rent him out for advertisements, circuses and television programmes – did not have the right permit.

Today Bongo is a happy chimp with great athleticism and intelligence. He loves to impress everyone with his strength and does not care whether the spectators are human or fellow chimps.

Biologist Cristina Valsera is head of communications at Mona. She's responsible for the re-adaptation programme. She explains what it takes for a primate to readjust to a life at the sanctuary.

"We offer them the chance to live alongside their own species, because a human being will never be able to offer a chimp or any other primate the feedback he needs and can get from their own social group. So here we offer them a social group in an enriched atmosphere. With activities to make them think and have a good time. Because captivity is a boring reality for them."

Juanito was born in a zoo in Tenerife in 2003, and separated from his mother a few months later, when his owner tried to sell him to an animal dealer in Madrid. He arrived at Mona following several months of legal wrangling as the owner of the zoo appealed against the confiscation. Because he was so young, he adapted to the chimpanzee group within two months.

Marco was born in Valencia in 1984 and spent the next seven years as a performing chimp for television ads, studio photos, movies, and circuses. He became a national celebrity, but behind the scenes, Marco lived a life of hardship locked in a tiny cage inside a truck.

Because he was malnourished, Marco is still chronically ill and has to take daily heart medication. Most of the chimps that were in captivity either for entertainment or as pets suffer from heart problems – mainly as a consequence of an inadequate diet. Other problems include flu and injuries caused by fighting or playing.

The average age of the chimps at the sanctuary is 30. In the wild they would have a life expectancy of 30-40 years. But in captivity they can live much longer.

Josep Badia is a veterinarian at Mona. "[In captivity] they can reach up to 60 years old." he says.

"We've even had one nearly 70 years of age. He died a few years ago, but back then he was the oldest chimp in Europe. Their quality of life is excellent here without a doubt. They largely extend their normal lifespan because they have a proper diet and many other factors which contribute to make their lives longer."