This summer, Michelle Reininger took the reins as Colony Director at the sanctuary after serving on the Animal Care team for five years. A native of South Dakota, Michelle began her career at a Texas sanctuary working with big cats, bears, wolves, and chimps. We sat down with Michelle to learn more about her path to Colony Director and what she hopes to achieve with her team.
Chimp Haven: Did you always know you wanted to work with chimps?
Michelle: When I was a little girl, I loved to look at my mom’s collection of National Geographic magazines. My favorites were always the ones with Jane Goodall and the stories about the chimps. There was something about chimpanzees that just drew me in. Being able to share my days with them, now, is living my dream life.
How did you come to work with chimps, and what led you to Chimp Haven?
I grew up in South Dakota and there are not a lot of opportunities to work with great apes, but I kept hoping. I moved to Texas for college and got a job working in a sanctuary with big cats, bears, wolves, monkeys – and chimpanzees! I loved my job, but when the sanctuary was forced to declare bankruptcy I spent three years working with other organizations to find homes for more than 400 animals. Some of our chimpanzees moved to Chimp Haven (including my favorite boy, Pierre), and once all the animals were re-homed and the sanctuary was officially closed, I was able to join the Chimp Haven team.
What’s your favorite thing about working with the chimps?
Each chimp has his or her own personality and it is a joy to get to know them. Like people, some are extroverts, while others are shy. I love the sassy ones, because they don’t ever compromise who they are.
What do you think makes your team at Chimp Haven special?
My team is made up of some of the most compassionate, intelligent, and resilient people that I have known. They are dedicated to providing the chimps with the best care possible and will take on any challenge with a smile. Everyone has a funny story about one of the chimps and they support one another at all times. I have great admiration for each and every one of them.
What do you hope to accomplish over the next couple of years?
Every individual in every department has the same goal – giving the chimps the best life possible. We have different departments – Husbandry, Behavior, Veterinary, etc., but at heart, we are a big family. The chimps are our priority and the care they receive is second to none. In addition, I would like to help create opportunities to share the stories of our chimps and to make people aware of what an amazing place Chimp Haven is.
Who’s your favorite chimp and why?
Pierre! I have known Pierre for 18 years and we just clicked from the first time we met in 2000. He is a big boisterous male that is known for his exuberant displays that make him seem like a tough guy. However, upon inspection, he is a big softie, who likes to have his chin rubbed with a spoon.