266 Chimps From Lab Adopted by Florida Refuge

August 6, 2004

The Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care (CCCC) outside Fort Pierce, Florida, is transforming from a small, sleepy refuge into the largest chimp sanctuary in the world—almost overnight.

When the Coulston Foundation, a biomedical research facility in Alamogordo, New Mexico, filed for bankruptcy in 2002, hundreds of chimps housed there were abruptly up for grabs. The CCCC stepped in, buying the Coulston property, with the condition that the chimps be donated to the CCCC.

The Florida refuge previously held 25 chimps; 266 from Coulston bring the grand total to nearly 300. The first group arrived four months ago, another small group arrived this week. The rest will trickle in over the next six months as construction of their new home finishes at a mad-dash pace.

"I always knew I wanted this sanctuary to grow, and grow big," explained CCCC director Carole Noon, whose property covers over 200 acres (80 hectares). "I just never dreamed it would happen so quickly."

Chimps in the U.S.A.

Fifty years ago there were about a million chimps living in Africa. Now the chimp is an endangered species, with as few as 150,000 chimps left in the wild. Habitat loss and hunting continue to push the ape's numbers downward.

The United States is home to about 2,400 captive chimpanzees: Two hundred are in entertainment, 500 live in zoos, and the other 1,700 are subjects in biomedical testing. Chimps have long been valued for the latter because they are so similar to people; our DNA and theirs are 98.6 percent the same.

Chimps were also used for early research into sending humans to space. In the 1950s chimps were plucked from the equatorial forests of Africa and brought to the Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.

"They were used in gravity studies and decompression studies. Researchers would do things like put the chimps in centrifuges to see how long it took them to black out," Noon said.

"Chimpanauts" Enos and Ham were eventually launched into space, paving the way for human flights. Five-year-old Enos was the first chimp to orbit Earth in 1961. However, due to a malfunction in the control panel, he received a painful electric shock every time he performed a maneuver correctly. It contradicted all his training, yet he continued to run drills he'd been taught, and the flight was a success. The capsule was approved for human flight as a result.

Shortly after, Enos returned to life in a cage, where he died a year later. As other chimps were phased out of the space program in the 1970s, they were leased to research labs. Some were used to test seat belts—they were strapped into sleds and sped down tracks like crash-test dummies. Others were handed over to biomedical labs like Coulston, which Noon considers an outrage.

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