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Chimps from Old Space Program to Get (Temporary) Reprieve

Government says they can stay in retirement

Flo turned 53 last year. After a long and difficult life, she’s been in retirement in New Mexico for several years. And animal protection groups, backed by Gov. Bill Richardson, want her to stay in retirement.

When she was part of a circus, Flo was made to smoke cigarettes to amuse the crowds. Then she was put on display at the Memphis Zoo. And then she was brought to New Mexico for use in medical experiments related to hepatitis and HIV.

When the Coulston Foundation – the laboratory that “owned” Flo in New Mexico – came under fire for its cruel practices and was closed down, the whole facility was turned into a retirement home for the chimps who were being held there. Today they number 186, all living at the Alamogordo Primate Facility at Holloman Air Force Base.

The Alamogordo colony traces its lineage to the Air Force’s space chimp experiments in the late 1950s. A decade later, the toxicologist Frederick Coulston set out to build the world’s largest captive colony of chimpanzees for research, in New Mexico.

The Alomogordo Primate Facility

These days, the chimps spend their days in small groups, foraging for food, swinging from structures and whooping greetings at visitors and one another.

But last year, Flo, the oldest of the group, and her fellow chimps were ordered out of retirement by the National Institutes of Health to be sent to Texas to be part of a new round of medical experiments.

The plan sparked anger and protest from people from all walks of life who thought that, whatever your views on experimenting on animals, this was going way off the ethical map.

Animal protection groups rallied an A-list of names from the worlds of animal protection, Hollywood and government, and last week the NIH backed down, at least for now, from its plan to pull all 186 chimpanzees from retirement and send them back into invasive research.

One of the chimps at Alomogordo

Heading up the appeal was New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, supported by renowned primatologist Jane Goodall, actor Gene Hackman and a group of doctors, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, who oppose medical research on animals. Dr. Goodall wrote to the institute that the chimpanzees “will surely suffer considerable physical and emotional distress from this plan.”

For now, the animals will remain at the Alamogordo Primate Facility on Holloman Air Force Base pending a full review by the National Academy of Sciences on the policy of using chimpanzees in biomedical research. This review could take two years to complete.

Richardson wants the chimps to be retired permanently and for the primate facility to be turned into an official sanctuary.