Chimps lose an unsung hero



Dr. Carole Noon at the Fort Pierce Sanctuary in 2008
Credit: Save the Chimps/Jo-anne McArthur

Thinking about chimpanzees invariably calls to mind Jane Goodall, who spent forty years studying the behavior of our closest living relatives in the wilds of Tanzania. But an unsung hero for chimps, primatologist Dr. Carole Noon, passed away on Saturday, May 2nd at age 59. Her outstanding work deserves greater awareness. Noon founded Save the Chimps, a privately funded organization that runs a “retirement home” for more than 280 chimps rescued or retired from biomedical research, the entertainment industry, or the pet trade. Some chimps here have even participated in the U.S. space program.

In fact, Save the Chimps can credit the U.S. Space program for their organization’s genesis. In 1997, Noon – with the support of Goodall and others - sued the U.S. Air Force for custody of several animals often called "space chimps," which had helped in understanding the impact of space travel on humans. After the U.S. discontinued that program, they were dubbed “surplus equipment” and shipped to the Coulston Foundation, a biomedical facility with a reputation for animal welfare violations, or, as Save the Chimps' Triana Romero puts it, "the worst record of primate care in the history of the animal welfare act." It was the equivalent of sending chimps who had served our country valiantly off to animal Gitmo.

Noon settled the lawsuit, raised money, and in 2001, established a place to house the 21 retired space chimps in Fort Pierce, Florida. Save the Chimps was born. The following year, Coulston – whose animal research facility was based in Alamogordo, N.M – declared bankruptcy, and with help from the Arcus Foundation, Save the Chimps purchased the land and resumed care of the animals there. The organization now runs the two facilities, but the N.M. chimps are slowly being moved to the Florida facility. Some of the Coulston animals have been so traumatized that reintroduction to other chimps takes time and care.

Noon, who lived on the Fort Pierce grounds, died of pancreatic cancer Saturday. Although the chimps rarely get any visitors other than their caretakers, in an odd twist of fate the chimps had been in the news that same week. Former astronauts Scott Carpenter and Bob Crippen, visited on Thursday afternoon, along with camera crews and reporters to pay homage to the service of the space chimps. Chimps were used in the 1950s and 1960s as a proxy to test the impacts of space travel on the human body. Carpenter, the second person to orbit the earth, served as one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts. Crippen piloted the first space shuttle flight in 1981.

Only two chimps ever actually flew in space, and although they are not housed at the Save the Chimps sanctuary, a few of their chimp colleagues who participated in space program research live out their days here, on a remote 200-acre sanctuary where they roam freely, thanks to Noon and work which the organization continues.

Don't miss "Ecape to Chimp Eden" on Animal Planet.

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