America's "Space Chimps" Retired to Florida Refuge

Maya Bell
The Orlando Sentinel
August 14, 2001

It's suppertime at the rest home. The new residents whoop. They clap. They shiver the timbers of their cages.

So far, the space chimps appear to be enjoying their Florida retirement.

One by one, they reach for the tossed salad, fresh plums, pineapple slices and an experiment—"strawberry surprise"—that primatologist Carole Noon delivers in the pastel buildings of Florida's newest chimp sanctuary.

Dana, one of the original 65 baby chimpanzees captured in Africa decades ago for the nation's space program, doesn't seem to be fooled by the surprise in her paper cup. Inspecting the contents, she picks broccoli out of the strawberries, sucks the florets dry, then spits them out.

"They're not so keen on raw broccoli," Noon said, "so we tried cooked broccoli this time."

Learning to Be Chimps Again

For the first 21 inhabitants of the Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care in Florida, the experiments are far different from the ones for which they or their ancestors were conscripted into the U.S. Air Force. In essence, they're learning to be chimps all over again—or for the first time.

Slowly but surely, they've started to groom, bond, play, squabble, and reconcile. Their human caretakers at the isolated sanctuary nestled among Florida's orange groves aren't teaching them how. As Noon said, they're "just giving them a room at the inn" and making "educated guesses about whom to introduce to whom."

"They do all the rest," said Noon, who learned the tricks of her trade from legendary primatologist Jane Goodall. "The amazing thing about chimps is they can have the most horrible, awful lives, yet once you give them a chance, they recover. I can't explain it. All I know is they recover."

Indeed, their long journey to retirement, made during the past few months, didn't seem to faze them a bit. And why should it? The tedious, cross-country drive from a medical lab in New Mexico was a jaunt in the park compared to what they've been through.

Seven of the chimps, including Dana, now 39, were snatched from their mothers in Africa, shipped across the ocean and pressed into rigorous Air Force training. They whirled in centrifuges, squeezed into compression chambers, and tested the limits of endurance in zero gravity.

They did their adopted country proud, going where no man had gone before. It was only after two of the conscripts, both of whom are now dead, were shot into space that Mercury astronauts Alan Shepard and John Glenn followed.

Continued on Next Page >>


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