I-Team: CJ Reaches 1-Year Mark at Sanctuary

LAS VEGAS -- One year ago Saturday, Nevada lost one of its most notorious residents when a wayward chimpanzee named CJ slipped across the state line into Oregon.

CJ and her brother Buddy made national news when their escape from their Las Vegas enclosure paralyzed a neighborhood and ended in Buddy's death. But sometimes, happy endings do come true.

Last year, I-Team reporter George Knapp and photojournalist Bill Roe went with CJ on her long journey to a new home.

CJ is now part of an eight-member family unit. The sanctuary is not the same as living in the wild, but it's pretty close. CJ doesn't get to watch much television anymore and her fondness for junk food has had to be adjusted, but CJ is now living like a chimp, and that's not bad.

From the moment that CJ arrived at her new home in Oregon, she was a different chimp, offering one of her strawberries to Chimps Inc. founder Lesley Day, almost as a gesture of thanks.

"It's a natural. She fits in already," Day said, at the time of CJ's arrival.

In the year since, CJ has adjusted to her new surroundings and new companions. The sanctuary is a dreamland for rescued chimps, with spacious enclosures filled with things to enrich the lives of the highly intelligent, socially complex beings.

"She is doing amazing. She's really doing well. She's found her place in the group, not the lowest spot on the totem pole. She's got a little attitude," said Marla O'Donnell, the director at Chimps Inc. Sanctuary.

CJ, or Calamity Jane, and her brother Buddy gained nationwide notoriety as clever escape artists. The two somehow got out of their northwest Las Vegas compound last August, setting off a dramatic showdown that was captured on video and broadcast everywhere. Buddy was shot and killed by police.

CJ's owners Timmi DeRosa and poker pro Lee Watkinson agreed that CJ deserved something better, and so a road trip was launched. Marla O'Donnell from Chimps Inc. did most of the driving, Watkinson hung out, even sleeping next to the metal container that was CJ's home for a week, and 8 News NOW went along for what was to be a quick trip to Oregon.

SLIDESHOW: CJ's Road Trip to Oregon

A paperwork snafus stranded the group for days in Winnemucca waiting for the okay to cross into Oregon. The group eventually slipped across the line.

"She was happy. She kinda liked traveling. If you pulled up with the van, she wants to jump in and go for another trip," Watkinson said.

He and DeRosa have not only continued to offer financial support to Chimps Inc., but have visited CJ in the past year. CJ always reacts to their visits.

"She'll remember us for her entire life. We're like family. She's screaming, gets excited," Watkinson said.

In the year since CJ's road trip, Clark County has toughened its stance regarding exotic animals. A chimp owner named Mike Casey was busted after his three chimps were found living in squalor. He moved to Pahrump, but was told he wasn't welcome in Nye County either.

On a larger stage, more chimps have been released from government medical research labs to live in sanctuaries. A movement has also started to give chimps more legal protections as the closest relatives to humans.

Lesley Day says she hopes that in 50 years, Chimps Inc. will no longer be necessary, but for now, it makes all the difference for chimps like CJ and her new family.

"It's $1,200 per chimp per month to care for them so we've got to pull that money from somewhere," O'Donnell said.

Watkinson says his only regret is that he and DeRosa didn't connect earlier with Chimps Inc. If they had, Buddy might be living there too.

 


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