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Air Force Chimpanzees Fact Sheet


In the late 1950’s, the United States Air Force established a primate colony on Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico for the purpose of testing the effects of space flight. The chimpanzees were captured from Africa and transported via Air Force cargo plane to the New Mexico desert. Thirty-four of the original chimpanzees who were taken from the jungles of Africa still survive today at the base.

The chimpanzees were used to start a breeding colony and for space research. Some of the research was gruesome and cruel. It involved spinning animals around in giant centrifuges, exposing them to powerful forces of gravity ("G Forces"), and putting them in decompression chambers to measure how long it takes for a chimpanzee to lose consciousness. The Holloman chimpanzees were made famous by HAM, the first chimpanzee in space and Enos, the chimpanzee who orbited the Earth in 1961 in advance of John Glenn’s famous space flight.

By the late 1960s, interest in space research on chimpanzees waned. In 1970, the Air Force leased its chimpanzee colony to the Albany Medical College (AMC) for research purposes. In 1972, AMC appointed toxicologist Fred Coulston to manage the colony. In 1980, Coulston resigned from AMC and lost control of the chimpanzees. At that time, New Mexico State University (NMSU) took over the Air Force lease and began breeding chimpanzees.

Under an arrangement with the Air Force, NMSU retained ownership of every other chimpanzee born at the facility. By 1993, the colony had 350 chimpanzees; 200 were owned by NMSU, and 150 were owned by the Air Force. That year, NMSU abruptly announced it was pulling out of its lease to run the primate facility for the Air Force and was turning its 200 chimpanzees over to Coulston. After leaving the Holloman facility in 1980, Coulston had set up his own commercial toxicology company in Alamogordo, New Mexico. In response to NMSU’s gift, Coulston soon consolidated his companies into a non-profit organization called The Coulston Foundation (TCF). TCF currently operates the Holloman facility and the off-base Alamogordo primate facility, formerly known as White Sands Research Center. With nearly 650 chimpanzees at these two facilities, Coulston now controls the largest colony of captive chimpanzees in the world.

Fred Coulston

Fred Coulston is a controversial figure. A toxicologist by training, one of Coulstonís specialties is testing toxic chemicals on non-human primates. He also has a long association with the military. One of Coulstonís companies made millions of dollars selling the Army the pesticide used by many Gulf War soldiers. Research has shown that this pesticide, in concert with other chemicals, may be a possible cause of Gulf War Syndrome.

Even within the scientific community, Coulston has a questionable reputation. His ideas of using chimpanzees -- humankindís closest genetic cousin -- to test toxic chemicals is out of step with mainstream science. Coulston says that he can raise chimpanzees "like you do cattle" and envisions using them as organ and blood donors for humans.

While scientists like Jane Goodall have taught us that chimpanzees are highly intelligent and social creatures who have language and distinct cultures, use tools, teach their young, make moral choices, and think, feel and act in ways remarkably similar to humans, Coulston sees them as "vicious, aggressive animals" who will "run around your living room and kill your children." Coulston has advertised the availability of chimpanzees for developing cosmetics and pesticides. The anachronistic views of this octogenarian researcher are a throwback to a far-less enlightened era.

The Coulston Foundation’s Record

In addition to viewing chimpanzees, who are more than 98 percent genetically similar to humans, as little more than furry test tubes, Coulston has a terrible record of animal care. Since 1993, dozens of chimpanzees and monkeys at TCF have died "unexpectedly" under conditions that suggest extreme negligence. In October 1993, for example, three chimpanzees literally cooked to death when a heater malfunctioned and the temperature in their housing unit soared to 140 degrees. Monkeys at TCF have died from water deprivation after their water delivery system broke. No one noticed for days the obvious signs of monkeys dying slowly and painfully from thirst. Monkeys and a chimpanzee have died after choking to death on their own vomit; still others were victims of egregious veterinary negligence.

TCF is the only lab ever to have been formally charged three times by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for multiple violations of the Animal Welfare Act. In June 1996, TCF agreed to settle charges filed the previous year by paying a $40,000 fine, one of the largest ever leveled against a research institution.

In August 1999, TCF settled two additional sets of charges, and an open USDA investigation into another chimpanzees’ death, by entering into an unprecedented legal agreement with the USDA. Conditions of the settlement include forcing TCF to divest of 300 chimpanzees by the year 2002, stop breeding and acquisition of new chimpanzees unless expressly approved by USDA, hire an adequate number of qualified veterinarians approved by USDA and submit to oversight by outside animal care monitors, including an independent compliance official. If any of the terms of the settlement are violated, TCF must pay a $100,000 fine.

Never before has a research lab been forced to divest of primates and submit to such drastic oversight measures. The severity of the conditions is testimony to the grave failings of TCF and a clear indication that the USDA -- and Coulston officials themselves -- recognize that TCF does not have the financial resources or animal care expertise to care for 650 chimpanzees.

Air Force Relationship with Coulston

Despite Coulston’s reputation and troubling record of animal care, in 1993 the Air Force entered into a lease with Coulston to manage 150 Air Force-owned chimpanzees and the $10 million, publicly-funded building that houses them. In the summer of 1995, a provision in the Defense Authorization bill would have turned ownership of the chimpanzees and the building over to Coulston. Stiff opposition from animal advocacy groups, and the eminent Dr. Goodall, convinced Congress to drop the provision. Instead, Congress directed the Air Force to enter into a competitive bid process and award the chimpanzees to a facility or facilities that would provide "adequate care" to the chimps for life.

The Betrayal

In August 1998, after a bid process that was biased from the start, the Air Force announced that it was awarding 111 chimpanzees to TCF. Just 30 chimps would be retired to Primarily Primates Inc., a Texas-based sanctuary. In making the award, the Air Force ignored the mountains of information documenting that TCF was incapable of providing "adequate care" to the chimps. It thumbed its nose at Congress and turned its back on its responsibility toward the chimpanzees.

The Lawsuit

In order to reverse the Air Force’s irresponsible decision, the Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care, which had submitted a bid to retire the chimpanzees, has filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. The Center, led by Drs. Jane Goodall and Roger Fouts, maintains that the Air Force’s award of the chimpanzees to TCF was illegal, because TCF could meet none of the financial or animal care criteria set forth by the Air Force to insure adequate care of the chimpanzees.

The Center stands ready to provide sanctuary to many of the Air Force chimpanzees. The lawsuit is the best hope that the famous space chimpanzees – some of whom have been behind bars for decades – will be given the retirement they so richly deserve.

What You Can Do

Write to your Congressional representative and Senators to protest the Air Force’s treatment of these chimpanzees and to support legislation, offered by Rep. James Greenwood (R-PA) to create a national sanctuary for retired research chimpanzees. (U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC 20515; U.S. Senate, Washington, DC 20510; 202/224-3121)


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