Sounds of nature echo in the woods of southwest Caddo, where more than 140 chimpanzees revel but some soon may roil in controversy.
On the other side of a protective fence Wednesday, actors and crew members in the Jack Black movie "The Year One" used the woods not far from Keithville to film as the Chimp Haven board decided to fight a Texas judge's order to cast six of the chimps from their garden and back into a sanctuary in Bexar County, Texas.
"We will fight for the welfare of the chimpanzees that were rescued from a Texas facility in 2006," Dr. Linda Brent, Chimp Haven president and director, said Wednesday. "Last Friday, we filed a motion for a new trial in the case in which Primarily Primates sued Chimp Haven for the return of these chimpanzees."
When asked by the Texas attorney general's office to care for the chimps, she said, Chimp Haven agreed to provide space for the animals.
"It's with the same concern for the chimpanzees' welfare that we have decided to fight the court's decision to return the chimpanzees to the facility where they endured such difficulties."
The chimps, known as the "Keithville Krewe," are Sarah, 47, Sheba, 26, Keeli, 10, Ivy, 11, Harper, 8, and Emma, 7.
"The Keithville Krewe is flourishing and happy," Brent added Wednesday. "Forcing them to leave their home at Chimp Haven is counter to their best interests and their welfare.
"It's been difficult for them because all three of the adult males that were in this original group of nine passed away, two at Primarily primates and just recently Darrell," she said. Darrell, one of the adult males, died Jan. 4 of reasons still being investigated.
The group has met and befriended other chimps and has grown acclimated to the area and the weather, Brent said.
"Chimp Haven has stepped forward to help these chimps in need, and we will not turn our back on them now. Our only goal has been to ensure the best future for the chimpanzees."
The chimpanzees were brought to Chimp Haven in November 2006 after Primarily Primates, a San Antonio facility, was seized by the Texas attorney general's office on allegations of mismanagement of charitable funds and animals living in substandard conditions.
First there were nine chimps, but two of the adult males died before coming to Chimp Haven. Then Darrell died.
Chimp Haven had requested that Primarily Primates agree to an independent third-party assessment of what would be in the best interest of the chimps, Brent said. But Primarily Primates would not agree, she said.
Priscilla Feral, president of Connecticut-based Friends of Animals, which merged with Primarily Primates and now operates the Texas facility, explained why.
"We have a chimpanzee expert on site — our full-time veterinarian, Dr. Valerie Kirk," she said. "Dr. Kirk wants the chimpanzees returned to Primarily Primates. Who is the mystery person offered by Chimp Haven who should interfere at this stage? Chimp Haven is wasting the court's time and money on this."
Brent disagrees, citing the chimps' state of mind, especially after the deaths of adults who were part of an original group of nine chimps sent to Primarily Primates from a research project in Ohio.
The chimps, Brent said, "are doing so well here physically and socially and are in a group where the youngsters have adult role models and the older females have companions. It would surely be detrimental to them to be moved again after all they have endured."
In April, the Texas attorney general's office settled the case against Primarily Primates, which later sued Chimp Haven for return of the chimps, claiming the transfer of the primates was temporary. In February, Texas 285th District Judge Michael Peden granted Primarily Primates' motion for a summary judgment to send the six chimpanzees back to San Antonio.
The Texas sanctuary folks are eager to see their charges return home. "It is in the best interest of the chimpanzees to return them to Primarily Primates," Feral said.
"These six chimpanzees came to Primarily Primates out of research. Primarily Primates made a commitment to look after them and to keep them in a permanent sanctuary that will be a model for refuges around the world. We're offering a permanent, private, respectful refuge which has a full-time veterinarian, an expert in chimpanzee care."
Chimp Haven, also known as The National Chimpanzee Sanctuary, is 25 miles southwest of Shreveport in Eddie D. Jones Nature Park. It welcomed its first residents in April 2005 and is home to 141 retired chimpanzees.
Primarily Primates, founded in 1978, acknowledges on its Web site that it restructured its board in 2007 under an agreement with the Texas attorney general's office and that a probate judge placed the sanctuary under control of a receiver from October 2006 through April.
But, Feral said, "Chimp Haven works through a contract with federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, which use chimpanzees in testing.
"Chimp Haven stores apes who are expensive to keep in the lab. The government has the public donate to Chimp Haven, which allows the government to have more money for ape research. Thus, how important is it to support private sanctuaries with no connection at all to public display or research?"
Feral said the Texas court has ordered that Chimp Haven pay Primarily Primates' attorneys' fees through every stage of appeal.
"Instead of continuing to litigate, Chimp Haven should let these chimpanzees get on with their lives and be returned to their permanent refuge as soon as possible."
Brent would not say how far she and her board are prepared to go in their appeals.
"Where it goes from here is hard to say. At this point, we just hope courts and the judges at the district court level do what's right for the chimps and consider their welfare."