Text and photos by Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D.
"…crying in a formidable voice,-- Sanctuary!… repeated thrice with frenzy, even to the clouds: Sanctuary! Sanctuary! Sanctuary!" - Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Coulston. The very name sends shivers down my spine. The Coulston Foundation is a deceptively pleasant name for a primate testing lab in Alamogordo, NM, that bred and maintained the largest colony of captive chimpanzees in the world - over 600 at its peak. For over 40 years, hundreds and hundreds of Coulston's chimpanzees were used in medical experiments. For over 40 years, chimpanzees suffered and died there.
An alliance of concerned organizations, spearheaded by In Defense of Animals (IDA), Animal Protection of New Mexico (APNM), and the Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care fought for almost a decade to win the release of the chimpanzees from Coulston's control. Thanks to the generosity of the Michigan-based Arcus Foundation, Coulston - both the primates and facility - was finally purchased last September by Arcus and entrusted to the Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care. For the first time in decades, the 220 chimpanzees and 60 crab-eating macaques at Coulston would no longer be subjected to medical research. What was once their hell has become their sanctuary, the first step in their journey to a humane, compassionate and permanent retirement.
In November of 2002, I travelled to the former Coulston lab with other APNM and IDA staff and board members. It was the first time we would enter this notorious place. Our caravan of cars pulled up outside the gate on a sunny morning. As we waited for someone to let us through, we jumped from our cars, and ran along the fence looking at cage after cage of chimpanzees - some in groups but most alone. Never have I seen so many great apes in one place.
Inside these gates that once hid the chimpanzees from the world, we were met by Dr. Carole Noon. Dr. Noon is a biological anthropologist. She has worked with chimpanzees for 20 years and is the director of the Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care (CCCC). In 1997 she established CCCC, a sanctuary for chimpanzees in Ft. Pierce, Fl. There are 21 retired chimpanzees at the Florida facility. They live on a beautiful, three-acre island - a far cry from the concrete and steel of their previous lives. The Florida chimpanzees are enjoying their retirement. These chimpanzees were the original astronauts on which the United States Air Force tested the effects of space flight prior to human space travel. When the program was disbanded in 1997, the chimpanzees were given to Coulston. The CCCC filed a law suit to gain the custody of the space chimps away from Coulston. After a year of negotiations, CCCC was ultimately awarded custody of 21 of the space chimps. The rest remained at Coulston.
Never one satisfied with small victories, Dr. Noon worked quietly and tirelessly for the release of all of the Coulston chimpanzees. The dream became a reality in September of 2002. Dr. Noon now faces the daunting task of caring for the chimpanzees for the rest of their lives. With a possible lifespan of 50 years, this is a formidable undertaking.
We walked among the dozen or so buildings with a mixture of curiosity and disgust. Row upon row of chimpanzees peered out at us, curiosity piqued by the novelty of visitors. Hoots, pants and screams greeted and jeered us. I maintained a respectful distance, and tried not to gaze into the eyes of those who had been terrorized by this place. The chimpanzees had no way of knowing if we were friend or foe, and expressed their concerns in no uncertain terms. Those among our group who ventured too close were met with displays of cage banging and screams.
The grayness of the place offended my senses. The barren landscape, and building after building of chainlink fencing with dull concrete walls and floors were as desperate as the faces peering out. The buildings looked to me like storage units, a place to warehouse the chimpanzees with no concern for the humanity that lived inside those cages. Of all of the primates, chimpanzees are most similar to humans in behavior, genetics and intelligence. Yet these chimpanzees were confined with nothing. Not an object or toy to stimulate those intelligent minds. No grass beneath their feet. And for many, not even another chimpanzee for comfort. Compile upon this the medical experiments to which the chimpanzees were subjected. Imagine the desperation of a life so empty.
One dark, windowless room held three, large squeeze cages. Squeeze cages are commonly used to briefly contain animals for medical procedures such as taking blood samples or administering injections. The cage walls move inward so that the animal is literally squeezed between the bars. This allows for easy access to an arm or leg, and the animal cannot run away. Some of the chimpanzees lived for extended periods of time in these squeeze cages as their research protocols demanded. I wondered about the fear a young chimp felt the first time he was placed in the cage, or the hopelessness of an old one who had made this trip time after time. The condition of the chimpanzees varied from seemingly well to those obviously suffering the physical and psychological scars from their lives as research subjects. A female chimpanzee named Scarlett has severe behavior problems, I am told, and notice that one of the now empty squeeze cages has her name labeled across the front.
Two months later, I returned to CCCC in Alamogordo to bring some supplies and see how the chimpanzees and Dr. Noon were doing. They are doing well. Walking the grounds with Dr. Noon, I had a sense that she was more relaxed. She has hired a great staff. Improvements are under way. She shared with me her long-range plans for the chimpanzees and the macaques.
The 60 macaques will go to a primate sanctuary in Texas. During negotiations with Coulston, Dr. Noon without reservation agreed to take the macaques along with the chimpanzees. She was appalled to find that the monkeys were held in so little regard that they had never even been given names. Ten of the macaques have already been moved to Texas. The other 50 will follow shortly.
As for the chimpanzees, each will be assessed and a plan for rehabilitation set up. The extent to which the chimpanzees will be able to learn to live in social groups and interact in the manner which is normal for their species still needs to be determined. Some grouping has already been accomplished, and the chimpanzees seem to be doing just fine. There are others living alone for whom a socialized future is less certain.
The plan for the chimpanzees involves eventually moving them all to CCCC's Florida sanctuary. The weather and available water make the Florida climate a better choice for them. The existing island at the Ft. Pierce site, already home to the space chimpanzees, is human constructed. Three acres in size, it can comfortably support 20 chimpanzees. The island is surrounded by water. Chimpanzees do not like water, so the moat keeps them home. Shelter, climbing structures and grass cover the island. It is as close to a chimpanzee paradise as possible for captivity chimpanzees. CCCC has 200 acres at its Florida sanctuary. The land can accommodate many three acre retreats. Dr. Noon plans to build more of these islands, and estimates that construction will begin by the end of this year. Each island costs approximately $500,000 and will be home to 20 chimpanzees. With twenty chimpanzees per island, construction costs will exceed $5,000,000.
Walking the grounds on my second visit is a different experience. Signs of progress are everywhere. The staff is busy attending to the needs of the chimpanzees. Volunteers help make enrichment devices, activities and games to stimulate inquisitive minds. The chimpanzees even look better. Their hair is fuller, the dullness gone. The kitchen is full of fresh fruits, vegetables, and other tasty and nutritious foods, items not in their diets under Coulston management. Pasta has turned out to be a chimpanzee favorite! We enter one building through a set of double doors. Interior cages line both sides of the hallway. Young chimpanzees rush to greet us. They hang everywhere from their cages. Pink faces and bright eyes look like ornaments adorning the mesh. We chat with them, and they chat back. There are toys for the young ones - sliding boards, balls, climbing structures and more. The gray is enlivened now with primary colors and active youngsters. I notice brown paper lunch bags filled with popcorn, today's surprise treat.
This is an auspicious beginning. Dr. Noon and CCCC have done a remarkable job in just five months. I feel a hope and determination on this trip that was shrouded before by Coulston's horrific legacy. The herculean task ahead seems attainable.
The chimpanzees clearly recognize Dr. Noon. They greet her with fervor as she makes her rounds. Do they know she is their champion, I wonder? They most certainly know she is their friend.
How you can help: Major financial support is what is needed most, not just now but for the lifetime of the chimpanzees. From now until the end of 2003, the Arcus Foundation will match your donation dollar for dollar. Please send your tax deductible donations to the Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care, 1300 LaVelle Road, Alamogordo, NM 88310.
To learn more, visit the CCCC web site at: www.savethechimps.org, and the APNM web site at: www.apnm.org.
Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D. is an animal behaviorist who has had the privilege of working with captive gorillas and orangutans. Her life was forever changed by a female gorilla named Gigi who one day asked her for a banana and chose to be her friend.
Volunteering at the CCCC
Text and photos by Ardeth Baxter
Jack, an ex-circus performer, does a dramatic display and likes to tilt his mirror outside the bars to watch the world go by. Grumpy is a frenetic drummer. Karen knows American Sign Language. Tarzan likes to wadge (store and suck between his lower gums and lip) chewed carrot and occasionally throws it at passersby. Thoto can eat only soft foods; his former owners had all his teeth removed. Sherry and Delilah are playful juveniles who love to swing and climb. We're told that Scarlett is schizoid: either she's still and silent or she's raging.
These are just a few of the over 50 diverse personalities in Building 300, also known as "The Dungeon". Most of the residents of The Dungeon live alone in 5' X 5' X 7' concrete and metal cages. Since September 2002, they and their fellow chimps in Buildings 700 and 800, who are caged in small groups, have been the focus of a rehabilitation effort spearheaded by primatologist Dr. Carole Noon.
Thanks to a new pilot program sponsored by Animal Protection of New Mexico, animal lovers with a little time to spare and a desire to interact with these highly intelligent apes can learn to communicate with them through enrichment activities designed to provide much-needed sensory stimulation and social contact. They will also assist with more mundane tasks such as packing meals of fruits and vegetables for over 200 chimps; preparing enrichment tools using snack food (plastic tubes packed with sunflower seeds, cereal, and peanuts, astroturf squares on plastic smeared with peanut butter, marshmallows and raisins, or paper bags of popcorn); hosing down cages; and doing the laundry.
At the first volunteer orientation at the 4 C's (The Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care) in January, almost thirty of us filled a small meeting room on whose wall hangs a quilt with photos of chimps at Dr. Noon's Ft. Pierce, Florida sanctuary. While Esther the Wonder Dog worked the crowd, long-time sanctuary volunteer Marsha Larsen gave us a rundown of the operation and reviewed the information in the folders we were given. She explained that volunteers perform enrichment exercises with the chimps of The Dungeon, who will be among the first moved to the Florida sanctuary in three or four years. We would work in teams of two, performing routine tasks for half the day and interacting with the chimps for the other half. We were warned to watch out for feces, water and urine throwers, to keep our distance for safety reasons, and told how to interpret face and body language and vocalizations. Dr. Noon took time out from her busy day to show a 1999 video of a group of Air Force chimps arriving at her Florida sanctuary, gradually settling in, and being successfully introduced to the man-made islands where they will live out their lives in family groups. We were then given a tour of the three buildings housing the noisy, active chimps as well as the enrichment building with its large kitchen (a former laboratory).
A week later Bill and I returned to Alamogordo for our first day as volunteers. We met some members of the friendly staff. In the morning we boxed fruits and vegetables for three meals. We spent the unseasonably warm afternoon with the south side chimps of The Dungeon, basking in the sun in their outdoor cages. As they finished lunch and munched on their popcorn, we tried to engage their interest by blowing on a harmonica, playing with a yo-yo, reading a book, blowing bubbles and blowing up balloons, playing peek-a-boo, and just talking to them-with unspectacular results. We felt like a failing vaudeville act. Some chimps got up and wandered inside. Others, like Abdul and Doc, watched with mild curiosity. Jack and Grumpy reacted with pant-hoot displays. Oblivious, Karen self-groomed while Jeanne clicked to herself. In contrast, the "kids" Sherry and Delilah seemed willing to watch the show-although Tami and Henrietta at the other end of the row were unimpressed. It became clear on our first afternoon with them that the social and sensory enrichment process will work only with time and perseverance. We have to show these untrusting chimps that humans can be their allies and not their enemies.
The volunteer program is new and is in the process of being fine tuned. If you're interested in volunteering at the CCCC, contact Viki Elkey ( VikiElkey@aol.com) for the latest information and specific requirements.
For a list of items needed by the chimps at the 4C's: www.apnm.org/campaigns/coulstonkills/chimps/wishlist.htm
For information on chimp behavior and descriptions of projects of the Jane Goodall Institute: www.janegoodall.org
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