In a photo Curtis Shepperson displays in his office, a chimpanzee is wearing a pink bunny costume. He called it the chimp’s “Easter outfit.”
Photos of the primates intermingle with Shepperson’s human family members. To him, the two are inseparable.
“They are my kids. They are my family,” he said.
Most of the chimps were raised at Shepperson’s private Mechanicsville zoo, Windy Oaks Animal Farm.
Shepperson and his wife raised several chimps in their home where they were fed from a bottle and slept in a bed with the owners.
When chimps are young, “you take care of them like children,” Shepperson said.
The chimps are much older now and can no longer be treated like babies.
“When [chimpanzees] get bigger, you can’t interact with them anymore,” Shepperson said.
Although Shepperson’s relationships with the chimps are not as personal today, they are still considered part of the family, he said.
But Shepperson and the Windy Oaks staff will soon have to say goodbye to their primate “family.” Hanover officials have set a Dec. 31 deadline requiring the chimps to leave the county.
The chimps will relocate to a new home at Houston Zoo, where animal caretakers will personally feed the chimps just as the animals are used to at Windy Oaks, Shepperson said.
Saying goodbye to the primate family will not be easy for Shepperson. He said it wouldn’t only be emotionally difficult for him but also the children and residents in Hanover, who have gotten to know the chimps over the course of the primates’ residence in the county.
One of the only occasions Windy Oaks is open to the public is when Shepperson holds fundraisers to help cancer patients like his young grandson.
On July 28, Hanover residents will have one last chance to see the chimps at Shepperson’s very last fundraiser. Visitors will be charged an admission fee and all profits will go to the VCU Massey Center for Pediatric Oncology and young cancer patients like Shepperson’s grandson.
Although Shepperson said he knows the chimps will be taken care of in Texas, the county’s decision still troubles him.
Shepperson was forced to part with his chimpanzees as part of a settlement with the county that centered around the escape of two chimps and subsequent discovery that Shepperson had several chimps lacking the necessary “vicious animal” permits.
If Shepperson did not cooperate with the county’s mandate to relocate the animals out of Hanover, the county could have charged Shepperson for violations.
“I’m very upset about getting rid of them, but I have to,” said Shepperson. “I don’t have a choice.”