The Coulston Foundation had the worst record on abuse of any lab in the country. It was the only laboratory to be charged by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for violating the federal Animal Welfare Act four times.
"Decades after the Air Force took these animals out of Africa, they marked them surplus inventory and simply threw them away into the dumpster that was Coulston," Noon said.
At one point Coulston was the largest private research facility in the United States, with a total of 600 chimps. "There were problems with rodents and negligence, which led to a number of the animals dying," Noon said. "Coulston was a place full of dirty cages with no light. The smell was so bad it made your eyes water."
Eventually the U.S. National Institutes of Health pulled its funding and the lab's major creditor foreclosed. The life of Coulston's primates was about to change dramatically.
Noon is an anthropologist who worked at a number of chimp sanctuaries in the United States and Africa before founding her center in 1997. "As an undergraduate at the University of Florida, I heard Jane Goodall give a lecture, and it all snowballed from there."
Noon traveled to Africa to work as a volunteer at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage in Zambia, which she calls the turning point in her career. "When I got there in 1989 it was not only the biggest sanctuary in Africa, but the staff was keeping their chimps in big 14-acre [5.6-hectare] enclosures. That was new to me," Noon recalled. "I thought that was the right way to do it. [I thought,] I'd like to recreate that at home."
Her sanctuary is already home to 25 animals, ranging from adolescents to adults. Many stand 5 feet (150 centimeters) tall and weigh as much as 200 pounds (90 kilograms).
"It is legal to keep an adult chimp alone in a cage that is 5 feet, by 5 feet, by 7 feet (1.5 by 1.5 by 2 meters) for its entire life," Noon said. "There are many chimps living like that in the U.S. today."
There are no cages at Noon's facility. Instead, she's building a number of 3-acre (1.2-hectare) islands surrounded by moats 17 feet (5 meters) deep. Chimps don't swimthey are all muscle and therefore can't floatso the water acts as a natural barrier.
Each of the islands is connected by a causeway to a building where the animals can sleep indoors and are fed their meals.
The islands are essentially jungle gyms full of things to climb and play with, ensuring the apes can keep busy. They live together in large social groups that mimic family life in the wild.
"When you lock up a chimp in a cage, you are locking up an animal with a big brain. One of the worst things you can subject them to is isolation and boredom," Noon explained. "In a lot of labs they're infected with diseases like hepatitis then left alone in barren cages for years, and they basically go nuts. That's not surprising. What's surprising to me is that as soon as you pull them out of that, they come back."
Sarah Baeckler, a primatologist and coordinator for the Chimpanzee Collaboratory, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., founded by Jane Goodall, visited the chimps shortly after they were turned over to Noon.
"A lot of the chimps exhibited abnormal behaviors like rocking back and forth, pulling out their hair, and pacing when Carol first took over their care," Baeckler said. Such behaviors are associated with stress and boredom in both chimpanzees and people. "But as soon as their lives improved, they transformed from being despondent and inactive into energetic, curious chimps. The psychological transformation is incredible to watch."
For the chimps, the CCCC is a permanent retirement. "In other sanctuaries run with government money, the chimps can be called back into biomedical research. To me, that's not a true sanctuary," said Roger Fouts, co-director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute in Ellensburg, Washington, and a professor of psychology at Central Washington University. "At Noon's place, which is run on private funding, the animals are provided refuge for the rest of their lives."
When most of the chimps first arrive, they are let outside for the first time in decades. For those born in captivity, it can be the first time they've ever been without a roof or walls.
"When we first brought some of the Air Force chimps to the sanctuary, I told the rest of the staff not to be surprised ifwhen we opened the door to the islandsonly half actually went outside for the first few weeks," explained Noon. She assumed it would take time for the chimps to feel safe enough to explore. "Then we opened the door that first day and boom, boom, boomthe. The building was empty."
For more on chimpanzees, watch The Dark Side of Chimps in the U.S. on Friday, August 6, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel.
For more primate news, scroll down.
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