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November 2004
Opening the Door: Save the Chimps Gives New Life to Florida Retirement
The Satya Interview with Carole Noon

 

Tarzan Grooming Tami. Photo: Save the Chimps
Tarzan grooming Tami. Photo courtesy of Save the Chimps
More on Coulston…

On December 15, 2003, toxicologist Dr. Frederick Coulston died in Alamogordo, NM where he had established his nonprofit primate research facility, the Coulston Foundation (TCF). The foundation was formed in 1993 when Coulston merged several of his for-profit primate research ventures to create the nation’s largest chimpanzee facility. At its peak, TCF housed over 600 chimpanzees as research subjects. Chimpanzees and monkeys were used to test chemicals, drugs, and infectious diseases.

TCF has been formally charged four times by the USDA for violations of the Animal Welfare Act for inadequate veterinary care, water deprivation, and the negligent deaths of ten chimpanzees and four monkeys. These notorious animal welfare violations and Coulston’s public statements regarding breeding chimpanzees “like cattle” for research and potential organ and blood banks made him the target of many animal activist groups. Animal advocates were further outraged when the U.S. Air Force placed 111 of their research chimpanzees in Coulston’s care in 1998 instead of retiring all of them to sanctuaries.

Coulston’s animal welfare record didn’t improve, and as a result, the NIH, FDA, and USDA pulled their funding from his lab. Without these funds, Coulston was on the verge of bankruptcy and desperately needed to sell his facility. In 2002, he contacted Dr. Carole Noon, director of Save the Chimps (STC), and with generous funding from the Arcus Foundation and others, STC was able to purchase the New Mexico facility and retire all the primates from research.—S.I.

Today, about 1,200 chimpanzees reside in U.S. laboratories. Three hundred research chimpanzees recently discovered a new life of retirement under the care of Dr. Carole Noon, a biological anthropologist and advocate for captive and free-living chimpanzees. Dr. Noon’s specialty is in chimpanzee re-socialization and is the founder and director of Save the Chimps (STC), a sanctuary where rescued laboratory chimpanzees can live out their lives in comfort and safety.

STC’s facility in Fort Pierce, Florida currently cares for 21 chimpanzees formerly used by the U.S. Air Force. In addition, STC acquired custody of 266 chimpanzees in Alamogordo, New Mexico, former test subjects of the Coulston Foundation, a biomedical laboratory with a notorious record of animal abuse and neglect. Construction of additional habitats for the Coulston chimps is currently underway in Fort Pierce, and until all the chimpanzees have retired to Florida, Dr. Noon splits her time between New Mexico and Florida.

Dr. Carole Noon took some time out of her (vegetarian) lunch with the chimps to share with Sangamithra Iyer her thoughts and stories about providing a new life filled with social and environmental enrichment for our rescued next of kin.

For those who don’t know, can you give a little background on the Air Force’s use of chimpanzees?
In the early 1950s, the Air Force went to Africa and collected a bunch of babies and brought them back to the U.S., which meant of course killing all the chimp moms in their path. I don’t know how many they collected altogether, I think 65 of the babies lived. The Air Force put the chimps through tests, such as spinning them in giant centrifuges, putting them in decompression chambers, and inducing sleeplessness to see what would happen to humans when they went into space. By the 1970s, the Air Force had obviously been to space, had conquered its goal, so they started leasing these chimps out to biomedical research, which they did for the next 27 years, until they finally dumped them at the Coulston Foundation.

Can you tell us about the origin of Save the Chimps and how you got involved in efforts to retire chimpanzees from research?
In 1997 the U.S. Air Force announced that they were getting rid of their chimpanzees, and they threw them in the dumpster known as the Coulston Foundation. I had put in a bid and didn’t get any of them, but I really had nothing but a good idea at the time. So then we (STC aka Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care) sued the Air Force, and got 21 chimpanzees. The others came along when Coulston went out of business.

How have the Air Force chimps adapted to retirement in Florida?
They are doing great. They live on an island. They are a family. They have choices. Now that I’ve taken over Coulston, I know where these chimps came from. I know first-hand what kind of life they’ve led. They lived in small barren cages with no blankets and no toys. They ate a diet of nothing but dried monkey chow. Many of them probably lived alone or at best in pairs. Several of the chimps were breeders. So they lived alone, except the two or three weeks that they were put in with another chimpanzee; once they got pregnant, they were separated again. Basically the lives of some of these females was living alone, getting pregnant, gestating, giving birth, having the babies taken away from them; then going through the whole process all over again.

What is a typical day at the sanctuary in Florida?
Right now they (the chimpanzees) are having a big fight. [Chimps scream in the background.] It’s a funny lunch. For some reason nobody wants to come in today. Obviously something happened earlier this morning that we don’t know about and they are sorting it out now.

A typical day: We start breakfast at 7:30. We lock them inside, and we go outside and clean up the island. After breakfast, we lock them outside, and we go in and clean the cages. Right about now [midday], we typically have lunch. Again, we lock them inside so we can go outside and do what we call browse the island. We scatter things like cut-up lettuce, cherry tomatoes, or sunflower seeds so they can forage for it the rest of the afternoon. We let them out after lunch. We bring them back for dinner. It’s basically meals and cleaning poop. [Laughs.]

In 2002, Save the Chimps acquired the Coulston facility in New Mexico. I know you’ve made a lot of changes to better the conditions there until you can transfer the chimps to Florida. What are the conditions like in New Mexico now for the chimpanzees?
It’s interesting because everyone is thinking that their lives aren’t going to get better until they move to Florida. Quite frankly, their lives are so improved now, they probably think they are in heaven. They aren’t even going to believe it when they move here (Florida) and get all this space.

When I got here, you had 54 chimps living alone in one of the buildings. In the other buildings, you had small same sex groups, because they didn’t want to breed, but they didn’t do birth control either.

One of the first things we did was vasectomize the males, so now we have groups of males and females. There was a group of nine under the age of four; we’ve integrated two babies per group. Every group now has old people, young people, babies, teenagers. It’s a real family group now.

We’ve done almost half a million dollars’ worth of renovation just to make it livable. This includes putting windows and doors between cages so that chimps who were once separated by a solid cement wall could finally see each other and eventually meet each other. Again, they used to eat nothing but monkey chow, now they get three meals a day. They get blankets and toys. We have parties. Our Halloween party is coming up.

When do you hope to bring the New Mexico chimps to Florida?
Well the hurricanes backed us up by about a month. I’m figuring that by the end of July 2005, we’ll have most of the chimps moved.

How did the chimps in Florida react during the recent hurricanes?
They slept through both of them. [Laughs.] They were completely nonplussed. It was interesting because they had to know something was going on because we put the shutters up, and we brought supplies into the buildings. The buildings went dark and finally the electricity went out so the fans went off. They didn’t think anything of it.

But your facilities were intact?
Yes. Well I knew evacuation was never going to be an option, so we pretty much built these to be hurricane bunkers.

My understanding is that you have the largest social group of chimpanzees and the largest enclosure in the States.
We have a group of 26 in New Mexico and that is the largest group. The social group we have now in Florida is 21. It certainly is the largest enclosure in the States.

I’ve kind of modeled this place after African sanctuaries, where you put large groups in large outdoor enclosures. Traditional thinking in the U.S. has been that seven or eight is a big group. People worry about how many males you can have in a group. I think there are seven adult males in this group.

Can you cite some of the challenges in creating these social groups?
You know there is a mystique about introducing chimps. I don’t know where it started, and how it gets perpetuated. Quite frankly, you watch how two chimps act behind the bars and then you can make a pretty good guess if they’ll get along. Either they are fighting between the bars or they are playing. If they are playing and grooming, then you open the door. And that is pretty much the role of the human being. You open the door. The chimps walk through the door and do all the rest. I think I can say, every time I’ve opened a door, they’ve gladly walked through it. They are so ready to get on with their lives.

Would you like to share a story of a particular individual there?
I have a story about a chimpanzee named Tarzan. He lived in that Coulston building where I found 54 chimps living alone. He was born in Africa, so he’s about 42 years old. He was used as a sperm donor. He was the father of maybe 15 or 20 children. We have all of his offspring, which is pretty interesting because this family circle is closing in on us. Tarzan lived in this building which we now call the dungeon because it was so depressing. We all loved Tarzan, but it’s hard to know anything about a chimp when that chimp sits alone in a cage.

Over the years I’ve been taking in more chimps. Five of these chimps are ex-pets—ex-pets are incredibly hard to work with because they come with all kinds of attitude, because they’ve been pampered, because they don’t believe they are just a chimp, and because they haven’t been around other chimps so they don’t even know how to talk to each other. So this group always had arguing going on, and it’s been a nightmare trying to get them together. I introduced Tarzan to this group, and the next day, suddenly, this group got along. Suddenly, they stopped fighting. These chimps would argue over food; if someone looked at them. All of that disappeared because Tarzan is such a diplomat. He’s such an incredible leader. I remember Tarzan when he sat alone in a cage, and now I see Tarzan running a group like he was born to do it. And the heartbreaking part of it is that this is the same Tarzan. It’s just that they had him locked up in a cage by himself. He had all of this locked inside of him. And to watch this guy bloom and grow and run this group and sort this motley crew out has just been a wonder to me. And you can repeat that story 300 more times [with the other chimps].

What are your future goals for Save The Chimps?
To continue doing what we’ve been doing. We are a 150-acre construction site. We are going to be moving in 300 chimps. Those are pretty much my goals. Eventually we will have an educational facility. We won’t be open to the public. I can’t say to these guys, ‘you won’t be exploited anymore,’ and at the same time be open to the public. The public is incredibly understanding about this. I think we can have an educational center with closed circuit TV and anything else you can think of that would go a long way in educating not only about these particular chimps, but about chimps in captivity, and it would be short-sighted not to include what is happening to chimps in Africa.

What gives you hope for the future?
[Long pause.] This is terrible, but I don’t have a whole lot of hope for chimpanzees in the future. Unless something radical happens in Africa tomorrow, I don’t see that they have a future. I know you did an interview with Karl Amman [see September 2003], there’s not much to say after bushmeat is there? We’ve been talking about it for how long now? And I don’t see anything changing. But I know that people don’t want to hear that. Writers don’t like to write that.

What gives me hope in my own life and my own little corner of the world is Tarzan and the 300 others like him.

For more information on Save the Chimps and how you can support their efforts visit www.savethechimps.org.

 


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