America's "Space Chimps" Retired to Florida Refuge

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The astronauts got ticker-tape parades. The astrochimps got new "hazardous mission" assignments—such as testing seat belts. They were strapped onto deceleration sleds like crash-test dummies and hurtled down railroad tracks. Their offspring, including the other 14 newcomers at the center, were consigned to the same life.

"Surplus" Inventory

No longer in need of their services, the Air Force began leasing its chimp colony to medical labs in the 1970s. Then, in 1997, Air Force officials decided to rid themselves of the colony altogether. Declaring the chimps "surplus" inventory, they offered them up for bids.

Air Force officials didn't care whether their charges went into retirement or research, but wanted them in a facility.

Noon didn't have one, so more than a hundred of the chimps were awarded to the Couston Foundation, a toxicology lab in New Mexico that uses chimps in AIDS and hepatitis experiments.

A no-nonsense woman with intense blue eyes and bug-bitten arms, Noon was appalled. She thinks captive chimps deserve better.

Recruiting Goodall and other noted primatologists to serve on her board, Noon sued the Air Force for custody, all the while raising almost U.S. $2 million to buy 150 treeless acres west of Fort Pierce and build an island dotted with hills, jungle gyms and two chimp houses.

After a year-long court battle, Noon won custody of 21 of the Couston chimps, seven of whom were in the Air Force's original colony. Now she delights in keeping them occupied.

"Trying to Keep Them Happy"

In the wild, chimps spend their days foraging and feeding. That means captives are unemployed and bored.

So Noon and her staff of five spend their days stuffing raisins into holes drilled into plastic bricks or mashing bananas over boards covered with artificial turf—just so the chimps can spend their time picking out every last particle.

The "enrichments" will become more natural when the chimps move to the island, but "trying to keep them happy will never end."

That's because she also knows this: They'll never be wild or free. They'll never be reunited with their families or have their own children. The males will get vasectomies.

"In my Utopia, they'd be allowed to breed and have babies and families, but you can't do that on a small island, where each baby is another 50 years of commitment," she said.

"A sanctuary's goal should be to go out of business solving problems created by someone else. Not creating new ones."

Copyright 2001 Sunday Gazette-Mail

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