The 50-year-long saga of the United States Air Force's space CHIMPS— descendants of a colony established by the Air Force in the 1950s to test the effects of space travel—is drawing to a close. Last fall the Coulston Foundation, a biomedical research facility in Alamogordo, New Mexico, transferred its 266 chimps and 61 monkeys, along with lab space and equipment, to a Florida-based primate sanctuary for $3.7 million.
The two original space-chimp pioneers are long gone: Enos died of dysentery six months after orbiting Earth in 1961, and Ham died in 1983. Others were used in space-related research on the ground. After the 1960s, the Air Force leased the animals to other labs, including the Coulston Foundation. In 1998 the government formally awarded the bulk of its 140-member colony to Coulston. Animal-rights groups have lobbied vigorously to free the chimps from allegedly inhumane treatment there. Between 1995 and 2001, the U.S. Department of Agriculture filed four charges of inadequate veterinary care against the Coulston Foundation; the cases were settled through arbitration.
"We are no longer interested in biomedical research on nonhuman primates. We are moving on," says Don McKinney, a spokesman for the Coulston Foundation. For now, the Coulston chimps remain in Alamogordo. "The main thing we're focusing on is improving their lives today," says Carole Noon, director of the Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care. The animals have been switched from monkey chow to fruits and vegetables, a diet now common in zoos. Later, they will be sterilized, put into social groups, and given playthings such as boards pockmarked with raisin-filled holes. "The chimps fill their mouths with water and spit into the holes to make the raisins pop out—it entertains them for long periods of time," Noon says. Many of the Coulston chimps will eventually be transferred to the center's South Florida retreat, where they will join 20 fellow Air Force-chimp descendants. Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health has just funded a new sanctuary to provide lifetime care for other federally owned or supported chimps no longer needed for research.