Giving Chimps Their Space


It’s November 1961. Enos is strapped into his chair in the Atlas rocket, hurtling through space. The 1 1/2-year-old chimp has been through a grueling 16 weeks of training. He’s been tested, groomed and grilled to operate the rocket controls, in coordination with ground control, through a training strategy of rewards and electric shock punishments that guided him through the labyrinth of switches and buttons.

Suddenly, it’s the moment of truth. The equipment malfunctions. Enos gets a shock when he pushes the right button. At ground control, the staff is shaken.

The billion-dollar program is in jeopardy.

In what seems a miraculous moment--except, perhaps, to those who know that chimps are 98.4% human in DNA terms--the young chimp surprises the team. He pushes the right controls again and again and again, even though the haywire machinery electroshocks him each time. Enos knows which are the right controls and ignores the painful shocks. The capsule returns to Earth safely.


Thanks to Enos, Atlas is ready for a human to orbit the Earth. His name: John Glenn. Just as 10 months earlier when Ham the chimp guided the Mercury rocket on America’s first space flight, clearing the way for Alan Shepard to do the same.

After Shepard’s death last month, news accounts hailed him as America’s first space traveler. “Not a single press report of the hundreds who talked about Shepard pioneering space travel even referred to [Ham],” author and environmental activist Stephen Tukel Mills says indignantly. “Ham was the first being in space. He beta-tested the rocket for Shepard.”

Now, the fate of chimps once involved in the famed space program, who were reassigned to medical research labs more than 30 years ago--and the fate of their descendants-- is at issue in Washington this month.

By congressional statute, the Air Force has been ordered to “get out of the chimpanzee business,” as various factions are calling it. And the military says it will announce a decision as early as today on whether the chimps will be transferred to a biomedical facility such as the Coulston Foundation, which currently holds a five-year lease for the use of the animals, or are permanently retired to a sanctuary, as animal rights activists propose.

The escalating controversy has enveloped not only the Pentagon, but also has involved House Speaker Newt Gingrich, more than two dozen congressmen, nearly a dozen astronauts, and scientists and anthropologists who are demanding that the Air Force award the chimps the retirement that advocates say they deserve.

“They’ve done their jobs. They deserve retirement,” says primatologist Dr. Roger Fouts, who along with primatologist Jane Goodall, and Doris Day and her 350,000-member Animal League, has founded the Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care, specifically created to establish what could be a $14-million sanctuary for the chimps--if the Air Force decides to let them go.

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) has his own term for the current military review: “A whole stinking process.” The San Mateo representative, along with Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), has spearheaded a congressional lobby to arm-wrestle the Air Force into retiring the chimps--or at least open up the selection process that Lantos says is stacked in favor of the desert Coulston lab, the world’s largest colony of captive chimpanzees, with more than 600.

“I’ve been crying foul because, until recently, it was like pulling teeth to get information out of the Air Force. The Coulston Foundation has a vested interest in winning the contract, has the inside track on information and is not providing the information to anybody else,” Lantos says.

“Now that the country no longer needs them, they’re treating them like old tractors or other surplus stock, to be auctioned off,” complains Carole Noon, co-director and fund-raiser of the proposed sanctuary, which would use 80 acres of donated land outside San Antonio. In a blow to the effort, an offer of matching funds has fallen through, leaving the group’s fund-raising total at just under $500,000 so far.


In 1996, the Coulston Foundation was fined $40,000 by the USDA for Animal Welfare Act violations after three chimps died when temperatures in their cages reached 140 degrees and four others died of thirst. Charges also included overall treatment, waste control and vermin infestation. A second investigation was launched this spring by the federal agency charging 24 similar violations. And, in mid-July, the USDA launched an unprecedented third investigation following the deaths of three more chimpanzees over the summer.

A third USDA investigation only intensifies the pressure on the military, as lobbying escalates in the final days of the review process. Adding to the fishbowl effect is the steady media barrage, first by major daily newspapers and most recently, a cutting “Dateline” report on NBC that focused on the New Mexico-based Coulston laboratory facilities.

“In my view, it is absolutely inconceivable that the Coulston Foundation--with its appalling record of abuse of these animals--could even be considered qualified to participate in this bidding process,” says Lantos, who has enlisted representatives Nancy Pilosi and Sam Farr to add their weight to increasingly hard-hitting letters sent to the Air Force in March and again in May.

The Coulston Foundation, for its part, is fed up with being tarred and feathered.

“Isn’t this getting old?” says foundation spokesman Don McKinney by phone from his Alamogordo, N.M., office. “What we do is serious research; we are a working institution, and we take very good care of our chimpanzees. We’re getting a little tired of being painted as the bad guys.”

His boss, Dr. Frederick Coulston, McKinney says, isn’t doing any more interviews since receiving death threats following the airing of the “Dateline” segment in June. “Fifteen seconds after it was over, we got 42 hate phone calls--one after another. He received a package in his personal mail that was so threatening-looking that we had to call in the bomb squad. This is an 83-year-old man, for goodness’ sakes.”


The record, from the chimps’ perspective, hasn’t been pretty from the start.

Sixty-five chimps were recruited by the Air Force for use by NASA in the late ‘50s. Snatched from the wilds of Africa, they were bound hand and foot and hung upside down on a pole while they were trekked to the docks for transport stateside. During the brief years of involvement in the space program, the primates were spun centrifugally, pumped with caffeine, deprived of sleep and trained with electric shocks. In the mid-60s, their usefulness to NASA behind them, they were reassigned as research subjects for medical and cosmetic testing.

And what began with noble intentions in the heady days of the space race has ended with a whimper for the “astrochimps,” as they’ve been labeled: Enos died of dysentery in 1962, a year after the Atlas flight. Ham was shipped to a zoo, where he died at 26--less than half the maximum life span of a chimp. And Minnie, who had been the oldest surviving recruit, died just last year at 41. Now the remaining space chimps and 142 descendants are housed in biomedical or breeding facilities.

Later this month, Rep. James Greenwood (R-Pa.) plans to introduce a bill--which Gingrich says he “strongly supports"--concerning the welfare of all excess research chimps.

Gingrich, who calls himself a longtime animal rights advocate, if not activist, has jumped into the fray of the space chimp debate.

“If we can find a way to develop a series of sanctuaries to allow chimpanzees that are no longer being used in research to have a decent retirement, we think that’s exactly the right thing to do,” Gingrich said earlier this year, after a meeting with Goodall in his Washington office.

The swelling chorus of protests and indignation regarding the astrochimps has come from other unexpected quarters.

Buzz Aldrin and Scott Carpenter, who flew the Gemini, Apollo and Mercury rockets, along with nine other retired and current U.S. astronauts, organized a protest letter to the Air Force.

“I acknowledge and appreciate the enormous debt we owe the space chimpanzees,” notes Aldrin in the joint letter. “Now it is time to repay this debt by giving these veterans the peaceful and permanent retirement they deserve.” Aldrin goes on to endorse the proposed Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care, which would “retire these deserving chimpanzees.”

The Air Force is angry and provoked by the news reports, seeing itself victim of sentimental media spin about maligned war heroes.

“It makes a nice story, but it’s been 40-something years since we were involved in space activities,” Col. Jack Blackhurst says from his Pentagon office. “None of these chimps are offspring or descendants of the space chimps.” The media, he says, insists on ratcheting up the emotional volume by connecting the current lab chimps with the original space trainees. “Even after you tell them, they still go ahead and use that [wrong] information,” says Blackhurst.

But the military is doing spin of its own, says Liz Clancy Lyons, director of Special Projects for the Washington-based Doris Day Animal League.

“The current colony is composed, at least in part, of survivors and descendants of the original space program. Four animals alone are offspring of Minnie,” she says.

Media reports put the number of surviving astrochimps at up to 33, though accurate numbers are hard to gauge.

“You can see here that Betty was clearly used in the space program,” says Noon, holding up the chimp inventory sheet issued by the Air Force. “She’s listed as being involved, for example, in motion-sickness flights. Also, we were never given a list of the fathers--we only know who the mothers were--so we can’t trace what other descendants there could be.”


Deaths are always a risk, McKinney says--chimp or human--in the fields of medical experimentation or surgically invasive work.

“Any time you get into a research protocol--even with all the precautions--there is always a risk of losing an animal, the same as a doctor going into the operating room with a patient. In this case, we lost a chimp,” McKinney says. “Would the general public have been more comfortable if it were a human being?

“These chimps have a better life . . . how many homeless people are there in L.A. right now? These chimps live better than they do.”

Mills, who, with Fouts, wrote “Next of Kin” (William Morrow & Co., 1997) about the kindred relationship of chimpanzees to man, is indignant when he hears the space chimp issue framed as a retirement, hero or otherwise.

“We aren’t talking about a hero’s retirement,” Mills says. “We’re talking about a discharge from the military after 40 years of service.”

Adds Fouts: “If somebody kept me captive, you’d say I’d been set free rather than retired. It’s a freedom issue. It’s more a release from prison.”

Most Americans land somewhere in the middle.

“It would be convenient if there were an easy answer,” says Samantha Struthers, an anthropologist who was director of behavioral sciences at the Coulston Foundation from 1994 to 1997. Despite her interview on “Dateline,” in which she talked of seeing cockroaches running in and out of chimp cages, she now says she doesn’t want to continue an assault against the facility. “There are pluses and minuses of biomedical research. But every single one of us benefits from biomedical research, and to deny it would be disingenuous.”

Struthers adds: “We talk about the Air Force, but the chimps don’t belong to the Air Force. They belong to U.S. citizens, and it’s our money that maintains them, and every single American citizen should have a voice in what their destiny will be.”

Fouts knows chimps perhaps as well as anyone. He says we know too much about the primates now to live in the blithe ignorance of past generations.

“Back then, a chimp was a monkey was a rabbit was a rat. They didn’t see any difference,” he says. “But we’ve since discovered the extreme complexity of chimpanzee society and their amazing cognitive abilities. They think, they feel, they suffer.

“We can no longer avoid our moral and ethical responsibility by hiding behind an ignorance that isn’t there anymore. The data is on the table, and it’s indisputable. They are not hairy test tubes; they are like us. They are truly persons.”