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I-Team: CJ's Journey from Las Vegas to a New Home | News

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I-Team: CJ's Journey from Las Vegas to a New Home

LAS VEGAS -- A chimpanzee known for her dramatic escapes into Las Vegas neighborhoods will travel no more.

CJ, which is short for Calamity Jayne, was transported last week from Las Vegas to a chimp sanctuary in Bend, Oregon.  Her route was kept a secret from the public, but not from the I-Team, which was allowed to tag along.

The I-Team has taken its share of road trips through the outback of Nevada, but never with a chimpanzee, and never an odyssey quite as convoluted. Two days became five, mostly because of nitpicking and paper pushing. Add to the mix a heat wave, gigantic wild fires, and veterinarians who seemed remarkably nonchalant about the welfare of one special animal, and it all makes for a memorable a jaunt.

SLIDESHOW:  On the Road with CJ the Chimp

By the time CJ's loved ones had gathered at a gravel pit on the outskirts of town, the chimp caravan was already many hours behind schedule. One co-owner, Timmi De Rosa, was there  to say goodbye. Even "Handsome," CJ's favorite dog, showed up.

The drive took CJ across the desert and through small towns. At first, she was bound for Reno to see the state veterinarian, but he became suddenly unavailable so the caravan stopped in Carson City after an 18 hour day.

CJ seemed to be enjoying the ride and she was told the chimps in Oregon at Chimps Inc. were preparing to meet her.

"She's a great travel companion," said sanctuary director Marla O'Donnell. "We've had her looking at their pictures as well.

"I think she feels she is going to meet these guys. Somehow I think she knows," said Lee Watkinson, one of CJ's owners.

The caravan was re-routed, stopping at a Walmart in Fallon, then on to Winnemucca to meet a vet at 4 p.m., presumably so he could sign off on CJ leaving Nevada. Staffers at the vet's office said they knew nothing about any chimp test. The vet did finally come out and cleared CJ for TB but told the group to return 24 hours later for other test results.

The caravan passed the time hiding out in the shade because of triple digit temperatures, interacting with CJ inside her cramped cage in the back of the van, and keeping her happy with treats she probably shouldn't eat. She kept everyone entertained with colorful expressions.

It was back to the veterinarian's office the next day. Once again, there were delays. No one had time to call for test results. CJ's group would have to wait another day, or longer. It was the same story when a flurry of calls was placed to the Henderson vet who had administered the original tests. He was too busy to call for results, we were told, meaning CJ faced at least one more day inside a cage that could not be cleaned.

"We're stuck in Winnemucca. We can't cross into Oregon without test results," O'Donnell said. "They keep telling us we'll call you when we get it."

Co-owner Lee Watkinson, who slept next to the cage throughout the trip, staying close to CJ, said her spirits never wavered.

"She sleeps well, doesn't snore," Watkinson said. However he did add it was frustrating spending so much time waiting in parking lots and motels.

"We can't clean the cage. She has to hand us the dirty blankets and we change them out. It's only as clean as CJ will allow us to clean it, O'Donnell said.

It was more than mere frustration; it was evolving into a health threat for CJ. Complicating matters was a massive series of wildfires burning along the route, just across the state line. A decision had to be made, and was, test results or not, CJ was crossing into Oregon at a time and place that shall remain non-specific.

"Pretty soon you have to say, 'what's best for the animal,'" O'Donnell said.

What was best for CJ was getting her to an enclosure where she could run and stretch her legs and have fresh air.  

All of the chimps at the sanctuary have their own tragic back stories. Some were rescued from backyard enclosures or bad zoos. The protection of exotic animals is a public policy issue in many ways, and not just an animal welfare story.

CJ seems to know a thing or two about the difficulties of letting go. Chimps are very smart and highly emotional. Her second escape from a backyard enclosure was likely caused by the loss she felt over the death of her lifelong companion Buddy, who was killed by police during their first breakout. For the humans who loved Buddy and CJ, letting go is even harder. That bond between species is very real, but it causes real trouble for both chimps and people. Releasing a chimp to a sanctuary is the right thing to do, but still isn't easy.

Just a few hours after arriving at the Chimps Inc. sanctuary in Oregon, CJ, the wayward chimp, offers one of her strawberries to sanctuary founder Lesley Day. After four grueling days on the road and a week inside a metal cage, CJ took to her new surroundings immediately.

"Everybody's excited to have her here. The minute she stepped out of the crate, it was a natural. She fits in already," Chimps Inc. founder Lesley Day said.

The seven other chimps at the sanctuary had been told CJ was coming, and yes, they do understand such concepts and were intensely curious about the new arrival.

Sanctuary director Marla O'Donnell did most of the driving during the long road trip from Las Vegas to Bend, Oregon. Co-owner Lee Watkinson stayed close to CJ during the trip, even sleeping next to her cage in the van. CJ's attitude about Marla changed once she was released into the compound.

"She was finally really grateful to Marla for bringing her here, once she finally realized what the plan was," Wilkinson said.

The sanctuary will take its time integrating CJ into the chimp's social order, which is complex. The sanctuary is not the wild, but it is a dreamland for rescued chimps. There are large enclosures filled with things to enrich their lives and a large, open air compound for play and exercise. There is even a kitchen where the meals are prepared for the chimps.

CJ's diet will be much different here. She won't be allowed the junk food she loves. She will get lots of produce, most of which is donated. It costs about $1,200 per month per chimp to care for them. The sanctuary is always looking for donations or informal adoptions.

Chimps Inc. has a CJ donation link that will get you weekly updates on her progress.

At the sanctuary, chimps get to be chimps but they also get to be more if they desire. Several of the chimps have learned sign language.

"Giving up a chimp is not easy for the owners who love them. It wasn't easy for Nikki Riddell, who owned CJ and her companion Buddy since they were infants or for Lee Watkinson and Timmi De Rosa who raised them for years. Even though the road trip was rough for CJ, Watkinson says he will have no trouble letting go of CJ.

"I think we will both be happy, not one bit of sorrow or regret. It's obvious this is the perfect place for her," Wilkinson said.

"Our goal is for the sanctuary is to be non-existent in 50 years, once the population that is here now dies, and stop breeders from selling these poor things, pulling them away from their mothers," Day said.

The planned quarantine of CJ is already over. She hit it off so well with the other chimps that she's already allowed to mingle with her new family. Watkinson said there was one face off with another female but it looks like they've worked things out.

The sanctuary and CJ need public support. People can adopt CJ or remember Buddy with a donation.