Hidden discretely among the orange groves and ranches in western St. Lucie county is the world’s largest chimpanzee sanctuary. Here, in the warmth of the Florida sunshine, 274 chimps live out their golden years roaming grassy hills, climbing wooden structures, relaxing under the palms and bamboo, and basking in the Florida sun. It’s a sharp contrast to the life they lived in biomedical research and space labs where they endured a solitary life in a 5 x 5 x 7 foot cage with the monotony only disturbed when taken to the lab for an experimental test or surgery.
History of Save the Chimps
Save the Chimps was established in 1997, under the leadership of founder Carole Noon, PH.D in response to the US Air Force’s announcement that it was closing out its chimp research program. Most of the chimpanzees, described by the USAF as “surplus equipment” were sent to The Coulston Foundation (TCF) in Alamogordo, NM, a biomedical laboratory with a long record of federal Animal Welfare Act violations.
When the Air Force announced its intentions to send more animals to TCF, despite it being denied accreditation after inspection by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International, Save the Chimps sued the Air force for custody of the chimps and settled out of court for 21 of the space chimps. A generous donation by the Arcus Foundation enabled Save the Chimps to purchase 150 acres for a permanent Chimpanzee rescue sanctuary in Ft. Pierce and to construct a new three-acre island home for the Air Force Chimps.
In 2002, TCF went bankrupt and, with an unprecedented $3.7 million grant from the Arcus Foundation, Save the Chimps rescued 266 chimpanzees from the lab, becoming the world’s largest chimpanzee sanctuary overnight. Dr. Noon and her staff modified the TCF into a healthier environment for the chimpanzees while undertaking an enormous construction project to transform 150 acres of orange groves into a city of connecting islands for 300 chimpanzees.
Save the Chimps’ efforts to relocate the chimps to their retirement home in Florida - affectionately named ‘The Great Chimpanzee Migration’ - took nine years to complete. A custom trailer was made to transport 10 chimpanzees at a time, each with a window seat on the cross-country trip. On December 14, 2011 the last of the former lab chimps from The Coulston Foundation were transported to Florida to live the rest of their lives on their islands in the sun!
Now This is Living!
The 150 acre sanctuary is divided into 12, 3-5 acre islands that house families of up to 26 chimps rescued from research facilities, entertainment, and the pet trade. While once confined to the cramped cages, for decades in some instances, chimps are free to roam their island or seek shelter in their family’s hurricane proof building. Families are introduced to each other gradually and matched by personalities. Best friends are not separated from one another. Once the family unit is in place they become very protective of each other and grieve when one is hurt or deceased.
There is no curfew at Save the Chimps so they come and go as they please 24 hours a day. They are fed three meals a day and healthy salad is also thrown about their island so they can forage for snacks at will, doing what comes natural. Birth control is strictly administered with all male chimps receiving a vasectomy and females given oral contraceptives daily in their Gatorade!
I was lucky enough to attend the first ever member-only tour of the sprawling facility on a glorious day this past January. Nearly 250 members were treated to an hour tour where we witnessed first-hand how these courageous creatures have adapted to the life of leisure they so deserve after giving most of their years to science. We laugh as we watch four chimps play a game of tag on a huge jungle gym and then look over at us with big grins. It’s almost as if they want to show us how happy they are in their retirement!
Our first island to visit was home to the 12 surviving space chimps. The curious space chimps saw us approaching and came in from their island refuge to the fence surrounding their safe house to get a better view us. They pressed against the fence, swaying and chanting as if welcoming us to their world.
I was amazed at how large these chimpanzees are, weighing an average of 150-175 pounds as full grown adults with 4-8 times the strength of a grown human. It turns out that most entertainment chimps including Cheetah on Tarzan (who lived to be 80 years old) and the two famous space chimps, were mere babies ranging in age from 3-5 years old. Once they reach age 6 they are too big and strong to control.
We were especially fortunate to have a celebrity on our tour. Lester Zinser, a retired scientist with NASA, was contracted to design the space capsule used in 1961 to send the first ape, 3 ½ year old Ham, into space. The same capsule was used later that year to send 4 year old Enos into orbit. Ham and Enos died before the inception of Save the Chimps, but 21 of their fellow space chimps became the first residents of the sanctuary “It brings tears to my eyes to see these chimps living out their retirement years in a colony where they can interact with one another and roam free” said Zinser.
Learn more about becoming a member or volunteer at Save the Chimps by visiting www.Savethechimps.org.
Join staff members of the Save the Chimps staff on Earth Day April 22nd for a special screening of Disneynature film ‘Chimpanzee” followed by a question and answer session at the Majestic Theatre in Vero Beach. Tickets are $10 for children, $20 for adults and include movie, popcorn, soda, raffle tickets and giveaways.