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Working for chimp change
By COLETTE BANCROFT, Times Staff Writer
FORT PIERCE -- Lunch smells wonderful.
In the big, gleaming kitchen, huge kettles bubble on the stove. A stew full of fresh tomatoes, onions and peppers will be served over barley. Broccoli, carrots and cauliflower go with rice.
A young woman stirs bananas into an enormous bowl of oatmeal while a sunburned man arranges chopped melon and strawberries in small bowls.
"How's that?" he asks the woman, holding up a bowl.
"Oh, no. You have to pack them, like this," she says, wedging more fruit into another bowl. "You give them that and they'll look at you like" -- she sniffs and curls her lip -- " 'What is this?' "
The delicious aromas, the heaps of fresh fruits and vegetables, the solicitous staff -- they all suggest a kitchen at some tony spa catering to treasured customers. And in a way that's what it is.
Outside, beyond a lawn, are a low, tin-roofed, lemon yellow building and a bigger coral pink building on a little lake with a grassy island.
That's where the guests live, 25 of them, most retired from grueling decades in aerospace and medical research, a few from the phony glare of show biz.
Now, at this 200-acre spread near Fort Pierce, they live under the devoted care of Dr. Carole Noon and a staff of six. The guests didn't get here on their own. It took a five-year legal fight, one Noon devoted a big chunk of her life to.
Last year, she rescued 20 chimpanzees from a lab in New Mexico. In September, she won her biggest battle yet, and now she has to figure out how to make a home for 266 more.
Chimps being chimps
The Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care is tucked amid orange groves and cattle ranches in western St. Lucie County. From nearby roads, you would never know it was there, and that's the intention.
The center is not a zoo. At this point it's not open to the public at all, although there are plans for a museum and education center. Its purpose is to provide a sanctuary where chimps who cannot be released in the wild can live out their lives in a semblance of natural conditions.
"The idea is for these chimps to be chimps," Noon says. "They've earned it."
Seeing 20 adult chimpanzees from a few yards away is an amazing experience, even though there are two fences between them and the humans watching them, an industrial-strength fence about 20 feet high and a shorter one to keep the resident dogs and careless visitors away from the chimps' fingers.
These are formidable animals. Forget those darling baby chimps in diapers that make everyone want one for a pet. They outgrow that stage much faster than human babies do; by age 3, a chimp is as strong as an adult human.
These adolescents and adults range in age from 10 to 41. They weigh 90 to 170 pounds, stand approximately 5 feet tall, have a reach a prizefighter would envy and, as is clear when a couple of them start squabbling, boast a scary set of teeth.
They are so strong that they can climb straight up the metal fence without bothering to use all four limbs. And most of them don't seem a bit intimidated by the presence of a couple of human strangers.
They look as different from one another as 20 humans would. Their build and posture, head shape, ears, skin color, hair and expressions all vary just as people's do.
It's easy to pick out Garfield's round head, Faith's pink skin, Marty's mottled upper lip. Liza has very dark skin and is a little cross-eyed. Debbie, one of the oldest chimps, limps from an old injury and arthritis.
Chimponauts and surplus inventory
It's hard to say which is more of a curse: chimps' similarities to humans or their differences. They share much more with us than expressive faces, intense social relationships, tool use and opposable thumbs. Our DNA and theirs are 98.6 percent the same; they are more closely related to us than they are to gorillas or orangutans.
They are so similar to humans in size and physiology that they have long been considered invaluable research subjects. They are different enough -- that 1.4 percent -- that researchers could justify treating them in ways no human test subject would be treated.
Eight of the chimps at the center were captured as infants in the wild. They were among 65 babies taken from Africa starting in the late 1950s and used to create a breeding group at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.
The chimps were used for early space program research, such as spinning them in centrifuges and seeing how long it took them to lose consciousness in decompression chambers. Among the research chimps were "chimponauts" Ham and Enos, who were both shot into space. When Enos became the first primate to go into orbit in 1961, a malfunction in the space capsule caused him to receive an electrical shock when he performed a maneuver correctly, contradicting a year's training. Enos endured the shocks and did his job, qualifying the capsule's system for manned orbital flight.
Later, the chimps were used for other kinds of research, such as testing seat belts. By the 1970s, the Air Force had little use for the colony and began to lease the chimps to researchers. They were used to test everything from insecticides to hepatitis vaccines.
By 1997, the Air Force declared the chimps "surplus inventory." Noon tried to get custody of some of them then, but because she had no place for them the Air Force turned her down.
Instead, it handed the chimps over to the Coulston Foundation, a biomedical research facility in Alamogordo, N.M. At one time it had 650 chimps, the largest captive colony in the world.
In 2000, Noon won custody of 21 of the Air Force chimps. The Arcus Foundation, a private family foundation in Kalamazoo, Mich., that supports human and animal rights, bought 150 acres of citrus groves in St. Lucie County as a site.
Arcus gave Noon a $1-million grant contingent on her raising another $1-million in matching funds, which she did. When the first group of 11 chimps arrived in April 2001, the center was ready.
In the meantime, the Coulston lab had been charged by the U.S. Department of Agriculture with violating the federal Animal Welfare Act, the only lab ever to be cited four times. The charges involved negligence in the deaths of 10 chimps and four monkeys. The National Institute of Health, one of the lab's largest clients, pulled all support, and the lab's major creditor filed foreclosure on more than $1-million in loans in December.
Also under attack by animal rights advocates, Dr. Frederick Coulston approached the center about taking over his facility.
The Arcus Foundation provided a $3.7-million grant to buy the Coulston property outright if all of its chimps and monkeys were donated to the center, a step Noon called "the largest single effort on behalf of captive chimpanzees ever."
Sex, but no babies
The Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care is nowhere near large enough to house the 266 chimps at Coulston. It will take years to expand the Florida facility and move all the animals, and Noon says she can't even estimate how much it will cost.
She is busy with changes to the New Mexico facility, "just trying to make it livable." Running the Florida facility costs about $300,000 a year, she says, and she expects the new one to cost five times that to operate. The property in New Mexico will eventually be sold.
Noon is a no-nonsense woman who says her age is "none of your business." She is a biological anthropologist with a Ph.D. from the University of Florida. Noon worked at several other chimp sanctuaries before founding the center in 1997.
How did she get into the demanding business of saving chimpanzees? "I saw Jane Goodall give a lecture, and the rest is history," Noon says.
The legendary primatologist, whose work with chimpanzees in the wild in Africa put them in the spotlight all over the world, is on the board of directors for the center.
Fred Thompson, president of the Jane Goodall Institute, says Noon "runs a wonderful operation. She's very talented, very compassionate and has extraordinary energy."
Noon lives on the center's property, until recently in a mobile home. She's moving into a new house whose pleasant porches have a view of the chimps' island.
The center has bought another 50 acres. Over the next five to 10 years, Noon says, they will build another eight or nine islands, as well as a small medical facility. The center will also have a museum and an education center, which will be open to visitors such as school groups and researchers.
The chimps, however, will not be on display. Video cameras will be installed to allow researchers to observe them, but their interaction with humans will be kept to a minimum.
Although Noon talks about how important the birth of baby chimps is to the development of social bonds, she's adamant that the chimps at the center will not be bred. "A baby chimp is a 50-year commitment," she says.
The male chimps have all had vasectomies, Noon says. "They still have sex, but we don't have babies."
Grass under their feet
The first 20 chimps from Coulston moved into their group living quarters about a year ago. (A 21st chimp died soon after arrival.)
The big pink house has 12 roomy, interconnected cages, with ledges and hammocks for sleeping. The scrupulously clean building was designed to keep the chimps comfortable -- and to ensure the safety of the people who care for them.
"We never touch the chimps," says staff member Irene Arpayoglou. In part that's because the chimps could easily injure them. "We also don't want them to seek human contact," she says.
A large, securely fenced yard narrows into a causeway to a 3-acre island in the middle of a moatlike lake. The grassy island has small hills, big drainpipes for shady lounging, an enormous artificial "tree" designed to sway and shake like a real tree, and multilevel platforms hung with sturdy ladders made out of old firehoses.
The only thing keeping the chimps on the island is the moat. It's about 100 feet wide, an easy swim for a human. Why don't the chimps paddle across?
"They can't swim," says staff member Shane Hayes (who also works as a lifeguard), "and they know it. They don't have enough body fat; they're all muscle. Their muscle-to-fat ratio is so high that they can't float."
When they were released onto the island in December, many of the chimps had never been outdoors before, never walked on grass or seen the sky uncrossed by bars. Some at first were so bewildered they walked only along the side of the group building, holding onto the wall for comfort.
That didn't last. Noon says the chimps' adaptation to their new environment and their formation of a functioning social group has happened faster than she had dreamed possible.
"If I had been sitting in a cage for 38 years, with cement under my feet and no sky, I wouldn't go outside the first day," Noon says. But the chimps did. "They're just amazing."
'Let the humans do it'
It's midday at the center. "We have a bunch of people coming in for lunch here," Noon calls to the staff members helping to serve the food.
Calling the chimps "people" is common here, seeming to grow out of familiarity with them and their many startling resemblances to humans.
Noon has coaxed almost all of the chimps into the big building for lunch. Normal procedure is to get all of them secured inside with their food, and then the staff goes out onto the island to do maintenance and to place food and toys for the animals to find later.
Most of the chimps are stretched out on hammocks inside or snuggled into corners, munching away. But Waylon, the biggest male, keeps popping in and out of one doorway to the yard.
Noon can push the metal door shut from the center hall, but every time 22-year-old Waylon jumps inside and she tries to close it, he bounces into the opening and shoves it back emphatically. It's a heavy sheet of metal about 4 feet square, but he smacks it back with one hand, as if it were a shower curtain.
Noon is patient. When she finally does get him in, she says, "Thank you, Waylon. Thank you, sweetheart."
But she never does persuade Garfield. The strapping 11-year-old male is a typical adolescent, full of energy and mischief, and having strangers around is probably making him nervous. He peers through the windows and hollers, but he won't come in.
So, instead of putting food out on the island, Arpayoglou and staff member Deb Smith haul over bins of watermelon rind and whole bananas and wait for the chimps to wander back out to the yard. Then they start hurling the fruit over the 20-foot fence.
"The first time we did this, they didn't know to look up," Arpayoglou says, so the fruit sometimes conked them on the head. "Now they know." The chimps are watching the trajectories of rind like seasoned outfielders, sometimes catching pieces in the air.
Emory is good at this game. He sits in the sun, clutching three big wedges of rind to his chest as he munches down a banana, skin and all.
Most of the chimps seem content with a piece or two, but Garfield snatches a banana from 40-year-old Dana. Stealing food from a senior female is a serious breach of chimp etiquette, and when Dana lets out a howl, most of the other males start chasing Garfield, who hightails it for the island.
Dana catches up and gives him a whack across the shoulders, and the other guys back off.
Besides the 20 chimps from Coulston, the center also houses in another building five chimps who are former pets or circus performers.
"Some of these guys still eat with silverware," staffer Cheryl Zega says. "Herbie wears clothes."
You mean used to? "No, he still does. We give them to him and he dresses himself up."
The chimps are sometimes given wading pools to play in. Arpayoglou says when half-sisters April and September first arrived, "They tore up their blankets in little pieces and dipped them in the water and started cleaning their cage. But then they figured out we do that, and now they're like, 'Let the humans do it.' "
Sometimes the chimps have to be coaxed to eat unfamiliar foods. "Pepsi wouldn't touch mushrooms. I don't know if it's some instinct that mushrooms can be poisonous or what," Zega says. "So we ate them in front of him. He was so surprised; he couldn't believe it. Then he tried them, when he saw we didn't die. Now he likes them."
The real chimp smile
When staff members aren't prepping food, they're cleaning cages, maintaining the island, building ladders and preparing "enrichment" items such as raisin boards, which are pieces of wood drilled with dozens of tiny holes. The staff pushes raisins into them, and the chimps work at pulling them out.
That kind of enrichment -- simply something to do -- was lacking in the lab, Noon says, and one of the cruelest deprivations for animals as intelligent as chimps. The ensuing boredom brought on many of the behaviors the chimps exhibited when they arrived: pulling out their hair, rocking incessantly, throwing feces. Many of those behaviors have diminished or disappeared.
The 20 chimps from Coulston "all have lab numbers tattooed on their chests," Arpayoglou says. "You can't see them now, because their hair has grown out and they've gotten tan. When they got here most of them were nearly bald."
Some of them, such as 36-year-old Emory, spent years in the isolation cages Arpayoglou calls "the dungeon." No windows, no natural light, no way to see or touch another chimp. "The researchers went home at 2 o'clock and turned all the lights off," she says. She waves a hand at Emory's graying fur and somber expression. "That's why he looks so much older than the others."
This day, Emory is sitting in the sun with 19 other chimps, a banana poking out of his mouth like a big yellow cigar.
"That smile you see on chimps on TV," Arpayoglou says, baring her teeth, "is really a fear face.
"When they smile here, they don't show their teeth, because they're happy."
It may be the next best thing to seeing chimpanzees in their own habitat: Jane Goodall's Wild Chimpanzees opens Nov. 22 at the IMAX Dome Theatre at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa.
Filmed entirely at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, the movie recounts Goodall's four decades of research among the chimps there.
MOSI is at 4801 E Fowler Ave., Tampa. For information, visit MOSI's Web site at www.mosi.org or call (813) 987-6100.
Fifty years ago, about 1-million chimpanzees lived throughout tropical Africa. Today, mainly because of hunting and habitat loss, they are an endangered species with as few as 150,000 left in the wild.
There are about 2,400 chimpanzees in the United States; 1,700 are used for biomedical testing, 500 live in zoos, and about 200 are used for entertainment.
Chimpanzees can live for more than 50 years.
Chimps make and use tools, cracking nuts with stones and using wads of crumbled leaves to sponge drinking water from hard-to-reach places.
Some captive chimpanzees have learned to "talk" using American Sign Language, symbols or computer graphics.
For more information about chimps and the Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care, go to www.savethechimps.org.
-- Source: Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care
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