Miles from the Atlantic sits a curious development of islands that have sprouted in the heart of Florida’s citrus country. If you listen on a cold, clear morning, when sound carries the furthest, you just might hear a sound more akin to east Africa then of South Florida. Hidden in plain sight among Indian River County’s citrus orchards sits the world’s largest chimpanzee sanctuary, Save the Chimps, a 150-acre slice of property that acts as a home for 272 chimpanzees that have been rescued from research laboratories, the entertainment industry and the pet trade. In appearance, Save the Chimps is completely at odds with the carefully segmented orange grove plots, but in action, the sanctuary is the most natural, heartwarming place in the state.
Save the Chimps is a powerful place. When invited to tour the property, I quickly jumped at the opportunity, not exactly sure what to expect but knowing that the outside world very rarely gets a chance to enter this great ape domain. I, like most, am a product of popular culture, where the brief experience I have had with great apes has been limited to visits to zoos or on television and through movies. I knew little of the research chimpanzees are subjected to and even less about chimps as a species, other then the standard “closest relative to humans.” And of the chimps at Save the Chimps, I knew even less, knew nothing of where they came from, the conditions in which they were forced to live, the tests they were forced to endure and the utter seclusion that became their lives before the sanctuary. Visiting Save the Chimps was an education, simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking—an emotional experience that makes me glad I fell into this job.
Save the Chimps, a member of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance, is the largest chimpanzee sanctuary in the world. At 150 acres, the property has been divided into 12 distinct islands, each three acres in size and equipped with a hurricane-proof night house, a jungle gym of epic proportions, hills and a family group of chimpanzees, ranging in number from eight to 26. In all, 272 chimps call Save the Chimps home, each retired from a life that would render most speechless. Some were rescued from biomedical research facilities, where a daily tranquilizer dart, liver biopsy for breakfast and life of solitary confinement was not the exception but the rule. Others were freed from the entertainment industry, where chimps are forcibly removed from their mothers as babies and thrust into a civilized world. After being made to act as humans and forming attachments to caregivers, they are sold off to research laboratories, when they became too big to handle. Some were the victims of a predatory pet trade, possessed by misguided and foolhardy pet owners who quickly realized a full-grown chimpanzee was not only a poor decision for a pet but a dangerous one as well. These chimps, which grew up in situations so far removed from what their natural habitat would have been, were forced to endure what can best be described as living nightmares.
Save the Chimps is a night and day change of pace for the resident chimpanzees. The mission of the sanctuary is straightforward: “to provide and build support for permanent sanctuary for the lifelong care of chimpanzees rescued from research laboratories, entertainment and the pet trade.” But the seed of Save the Chimps was, oddly enough, sowed by Sputnik.
At the height of the Space Race, chimpanzees manned experiments and missions deemed too risky or harmful to humans. These chimps, and their descendants, were the first inhabitants of Save the Chimps. In the 1950s, the United States Air Force procured 65 young and infant chimpanzees from Africa, establishing a cadre of nonhuman test pilots and crash test dummies. Some, most famously Ham and Enos, even manned missions into space. Over the decades, this population grew to more than 140, but as USAF chimp research began to wane, some were luckily retired to sanctuaries and zoos, but most were confined to small cages and destined for biomedical research.
When the USAF decided to get out of the chimpanzee research business, the chimps, deemed “surplus equipment,” were leased to biomedical laboratories, most notably the Coulston Foundation in New Mexico—consequently one of the worst offenders of the Animal Welfare Act. In 1997, as the USAF was divesting the last of its chimps, Dr. Carole Noon, a primatologist from Florida, sued the USAF on behalf of the chimps, calling for retirement instead of a continued life in research. Save the Chimps was born.
After a yearlong legal battle, Noon was granted permanent custody of 21 Air Force chimps. With a grant from the Arcus Foundation, an international organization working to advance social justice and conservation issues, specifically with LGBT equality as well as to conserve and protect the great apes, Save the Chimps purchased the 150-acre parcel in Fort Pierce and began building the first chimp island.
Earning her Ph.D. in the re-socialization of chimpanzees, Noon (right) helped establish a family group of the 21 Air Force chimps, introducing them to their new island home in 2001. By 2002, Save the Chimps had rescued an additional seven chimpanzees (five former pet chimps and two entertainment chimps), expanding the family group to 28. The mission of the organization was amended to include the rescue and sanctuary of entertainment and pet trade chimps to those rescued from biomedical research.
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To help keep the doors open at Save the Chimps, visit their website and see how you can help.