Source: New York Times
Date: 24 July 2005

Planet of the Retired Apes


This past spring, in a secluded patch of forest in northwest Louisiana's Caddo Parish, a singularly bizarre bit of evolution unfolded. There, amid the sun-dappled pines and flitting birds, a pair of 40-something chimpanzees named Rita and Teresa -- lifetime research subjects who were originally taken from Africa for use in NASA's space program -- became American pioneers of a whole other sort: the first beneficiaries of an inspired piece of retirement legislation passed by the United States government. Under the watchful eyes of animal behaviorists, veterinarians, enrichment specialists and daily caretakers, Rita and Teresa checked in on the afternoon of April 4 at the recently opened Chimp Haven, the first federally financed, taxpayer-supported retirement home for chimpanzees.

They arrived in a specially equipped trailer after an eight-hour drive from the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, Tex. After receiving full physicals from Chimp Haven's in-house veterinarian, including dental checkups for possible extractions or root canals, the two chimps were shown to their spacious new sleeping quarters, complete with fresh running water and cross-ventilation, multiple windows and skylights, hammocks made of neatly crosshatched sections of used fire hose, bedding of warm blankets and hay, vanity mirrors, as well as a TV, a VCR and DVD and CD players.

Following a long nap, Rita and Teresa awoke to a couple of banana smoothies and were shown the door to their courtyard. As it was recalled to me by a staff member, they paused a moment to regard the somewhat otherworldly prospect of a wide-open, odor-free patio, a playground jungle gym and, just beyond the play yard's far walls, their own private five-acre expanse of grapevine-laced pines and sweetgums. And then, as if in some unwitting primate pantomime of the very Apollo 11 moonwalk they'd helped to make a reality, they stepped out into the sunlight and tentatively down onto an equally unfamiliar earth.

In the months since Rita and Teresa arrived at Chimp Haven, a number of fellow research chimps have followed in their bold footsteps: Augusta, Conan, Suzanna, Ellie, Puddin' and Merv, all from the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, a major facility for infectious-disease and behavioral research in Atlanta. Another group of chimps from the Southwest Foundation in San Antonio came soon afterward. Thirty retirees are now in residence. By the time Chimp Haven, parts of which are still under construction, has its official ribbon-cutting ceremony in October, approximately 75 chimps will have settled there. When the facility is fully completed, sometime in 2006, it will hold up to 200.

Chimp Haven is a happy consequence of the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection (or Chimp) Act, passed in the final days of the Clinton administration. The bill allotted up to $30 million, pending matching funds from private donations, for the construction of the facility, which, with future expansions, could house as many as 900 chimps and serve as a template for the nationwide ''system of sanctuaries'' mandated by Congress to accommodate the country's growing number of surplus chimpanzees. Whether or not Chimp Haven is, as its publicity brochure proclaims, ''what chimpanzees dream of,'' a fellow primate -- a human being, let's say, also living in this country in the year 2005, when the future of Social Security and old-age pensions is very much in doubt -- could be forgiven for trying to pinch himself awake upon encountering the splendors of this monkey Delray Beach.

Still, for all of its feel-good aspects and carefully considered creature comforts, Chimp Haven is also a reflection of a darker set of realities, a particularly topsy-turvy time in the already tumultuous history of our so-called compact with the wild; a moment when the number of chimpanzees in the wilderness is rapidly decreasing and the number of those in captivity continues to rise. In fact, while chimpanzees in the wilderness are now officially designated endangered, those in captivity are not. There are an estimated 2,500 captive chimps in the United States, a number that's difficult to pinpoint because of the many private breeders still turning out baby chimps, mostly for private ownership or use in entertainment. Of the 1,500 or so laboratory chimps, nearly half are no longer being used for experimentation. Lab chimps today are largely confined to behavioral studies and hepatitis and malaria research, and an even greater number may soon be rendered unnecessary for research by advances in DNA analysis and computer modeling. As for the remaining refugees of entertainment and private ownership, their ranks continue to swell even though chimps are unmanageable much past the age of 6 and despite the fact that advances in computer animation may soon obviate altogether the need for actual animal performers.

Chimps are spilling forth now from all quadrants of our keeping -- research labs, traveling zoos, movie and TV studios, backyard pens -- and an international network of sanctuaries, in Canada, Europe, Africa and South America, along with the United States, has sprung up to accommodate them. Indeed, one newly expanded, privately financed sanctuary called Save the Chimps will soon accommodate more than 250 former lab chimps, the largest collection of retired primates in history.

Retirement for chimps is, in its way, a perversely natural outcome, which is to say, one that only we, the most cranially endowed of the primates, could have possibly concocted. It's the final manifestation of the irrepressible and ultimately vain human impulse to bring inside the very walls that we erect against the wilderness its most inspiring representatives -- the chimps, our closest biological kin, the animal whose startling resemblance to us, both outward and inward, has long made it a ''can't miss'' for movies and Super Bowl commercials and a ''must have'' in our laboratories. Retirement homes are, in a sense, where we've been trying to get chimps all along: right next door.

A Little Piece of Heaven

The narrow two-lane road to Chimp Haven winds through a sparsely populated stretch of forest, punctuated here and there by trailer parks and roadside farms, a few new housing developments and, just up the road from the entrance to the Eddie D. Jones Nature Park, the paint-chipped hull of the Macedonia Baptist Church. Chimp Haven's 200 acres are situated within the grounds of the park, which assures the chimps a relatively good buffer from human encroachment. The only other tenants are a cemetery for war veterans and the Forcht Wade Correctional Center, a state prison with its own new geriatric facility for aging lifers.

A prison work crew was scything a field in the park not far from Chimp Haven's entrance gate the afternoon I arrived. One prisoner pulled back from his work as I drove up and he locked eyes with mine, a searing, deeply unsettling stare that suddenly had me wondering if there wasn't something to the rumors I'd heard that the inmates weren't pleased about their new neighbors. I'd ask Forcht Wade's assistant warden, Anthony D. Batson, about this later that afternoon, making an impromptu visit to the correctional facility after leaving Chimp Haven. Batson came to the front desk and showed me to his office, a veritable museum to the Tigers, Louisiana State University's beloved football team. He told me the prisoners were certainly aware of Chimp Haven, having access to TV and newspapers, and doing occasional work in the area, but that he hadn't heard them express any particular opinions about it. ''A number of guys have asked me what would happen if one of the chimps gets out,'' he said. ''Whether they'd have to go get it. But we both have our escape procedures. Theirs is a modern, up-to-date, first-class containment facility. They're on top of it. Of course, they tranquilize. We don't tranquilize.''

At the request of Chimp Haven's president, Linda Brent, a behavioral primatologist specializing in chimpanzees, I timed my arrival at Chimp Haven for a few days before any chimps arrived, so that the retirees could get acclimated to their new environment and to one another with as few distractions from humans as possible. Brent, an expert in captive-chimpanzee management, is a slight woman in her early 40's with a Midwestern country-girl swagger. She wrote her dissertation on infant chimp development, conducting her research at Gombe National Park in Tanzania, the site of Jane Goodall's pioneering work on wild chimpanzees. For Brent, the experience of seeing chimps in the wild, ''just walking by, doing whatever they want, whenever they want,'' as she put it, changed her life. Now, after 17 years of being what she calls ''the entertainment director'' for the research chimps at the Southwest Foundation in San Antonio, she could hardly contain herself when talking about Rita and Teresa's imminent arrival.

''It's been since the 1960's that they were in the wild,'' she said. ''We don't even know where they were taken from. The records from back then aren't very good. Just the fact that you could import them -- that was done away with in the early 70's, which is why they started breeding programs for research. But I think they'll be fine. They'll be nervous at first. They aren't used to trees. That type of thing.''

At the beginning of my tour of Chimp Haven, I walked out into one of the facility's two wooded areas, accessed from the chimps' bedrooms and play areas through a system of metal chutes. Each section is a five-acre wedge of woods, secured with a combination of 8-foot-deep moats (chimps, being all muscle, sink like stones) and 17-foot-high concrete walls with inset metal-barred apertures running their entire length, so that even from their pastoral remove the chimps can look back toward the hubbub of the facility's central residence. A number of Chimp Haven's incoming retirees will still be sexually active and, chimps being quite promiscuous, all the males will be vasectomized, thus allowing them to ''express their normal behavioral repertoire,'' as Amy Fultz, Chimp Haven's primate behaviorist, put it.

Fultz worked with Brent at the Southwest Foundation in San Antonio, doing behavioral studies and devising what they call ''enrichment'' activities with the research chimps there. In 1995, she and Brent founded Chimp Haven, which then was dedicated primarily to gathering concerned primatologists and chimpanzee specialists to start devising a way of dealing with the country's growing number of surplus chimpanzees. The great lab-chimp surplus is, in large part, an unforeseeable consequence of AIDS. In 1986, the National Institutes of Health began an aggressive breeding program that nearly doubled the number of research chimps in the country, on the seemingly logical but ultimately incorrect assumption that our closest genetic kin would serve as ideal models for developing a vaccine. Chimps, it turns out, can contract the virus, but they are virtually immune to its effects.

Suddenly faced with the huge ethical and economic problems of what to do with so many surplus chimpanzees (each chimp costs roughly $10,000 a year to maintain), the National Research Council issued a report in 1997 advising Congress against euthanizing the chimps, calling instead for some way of properly repaying them for services rendered. With the urging of a consortium of animal-welfare organizations known as the National Chimpanzee Research Retirement Task Force, and with support from numerous laboratories and various zoological organizations, the Chimp Act passed unanimously. Chimp Haven was awarded the contract to construct and maintain the government's new chimpanzee-sanctuary system in September 2002, and when a group of local developers and the Caddo Parish Commission offered up 200 acres of parish parkland, all the pieces for constructing the flagship of that system were in place.

Every aspect of Chimp Haven has been carefully considered, right down to the grief counselors for the staff for when the chimps pass away. Touring the facility's huge main kitchen, I saw refrigerator shelves lined with rows of ''apesicles'' -- plastic cups filled with a frozen fruit-juice suspension of raw vegetables and fruit. Against the opposite wall, alongside a popcorn maker, stood a massive container of primate biscuits -- essentially dry hunks of vitamin-and-protein-enriched kibble. Set out on a long metal food-preparation table were rows of turf boards: square sections of thick plastic covered with AstroTurf onto which staff workers were getting ready to smear a mixture of peanut butter, nuts and seeds, which the chimps must ferret out with their fingers. Insofar as the better part of a chimpanzee's day in the wild is spent foraging for food, many of these enrichment devices at Chimp Haven are geared toward alleviating the boredom of having three squares regularly served up to them.

''Everything we use here we try to evaluate on a scientific level,'' Fultz explained when I asked her about some of the other enrichment items I'd been shown: crayons and chalk, giant plastic toys and Nylabones (basically big dog-chews), Mighty Mouse and Woody Woodpecker videotapes and television sets, specially rigged with clear plastic coverings to protect the electronics. Chimps have very strong and immediate likes and dislikes. Observational evidence to date has revealed that chimps find nature-sound CD's soothing. Younger chimps prefer kids' movies, Disney specials, ''Barney'' and the like. The mature chimps' tastes, on the other hand, tend toward melodrama and anything with lots of action and aggression. Soap operas like ''Passions'' and ''General Hospital'' are big hits, the latter, it seems, because lab chimps have gotten so used to people in white coats. ''The Jerry Springer Show'' and N.F.L. football games are also quite popular. Golf, baseball and PBS programming (except, of course, for nature shows) are not.

Along with indulging acquired tastes, however, Chimp Haven simultaneously strives to revive long-dormant inherited ones. Most surplus chimps were born in captivity and, after years of proximity to and interaction with human beings, they are, as primatologists say, ''highly enculturated,'' or habituated to life on human terms. Indeed, staff members cited a particular sense of urgency about getting Rita and Teresa to Chimp Haven. They are among the few remaining wild-born captive chimps, and it was hoped that they would ''remember what they did as little kids,'' as Brent put it, and teach those habits to their captive-born brethren, animals that have essentially become hybrids of us and them, a cosmopolitan monkey for whom a sudden and complete severance from us and our ways would constitute the next form of abuse.

In short, the place is a veritable chimpanzee Jurassic Park, a shining example of just how far we can extend the inherently paradoxical process of trying to liberate and dignify a wild creature within captivity. It's all a direct answer and antidote to the days of the old inner-city-zoo ape house, where all that the inhabitants got was the equivalent of a tiled public lavatory stall with a token section of log and a metal nameplate secured out front, a dot on a silhouette of Africa indicating the captive's original home. By the exit of those old ape houses there was sometimes one of those silly mirrors with bars painted in front and a caption below that read, ''The Most Dangerous Animal of Them All.'' Chimp Haven is, in essence, a result of one long, serious look in that mirror.

Earlier on the morning of my visit, I stopped by the Chimp Haven office in downtown Shreveport to meet the executive director, Linda Koebner. A lifetime New Yorker, born and raised in the Bronx, where she still lives part time, Koebner is something of a pioneer in chimp retirement. In 1974, she transferred nine chimpanzees from the no-longer-operational Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates in Tuxedo, N.Y., to a new home on their own island in a habitat facility known as Lion Country Safari, in Loxahatchee, Fla. Koebner showed me film clips of the chimps' initial arrival to that island. It was some time before three of the chimps, , Swing, Spark and Doll, could even be coaxed from their cages, having known only those until then. Once outside, Doll shot up to the top of the nearest tree. Spark held to his cage even as he was leaving it, and then nestled alongside the open door, where he ripped away an attached packaging slip and put it over his face. He kept gingerly pawing at the ground, as if testing its reliability. Koebner could observe her newly freed charges only from the far side of their moat. (Full-grown chimpanzees are several times as strong as humans and can be quite dangerous.)

Nineteen years after the chimps' arrival on the island, however, Koebner, accompanied by a habitat employee wielding a movie camera, was allowed to try a firsthand visit. In the film you can see a couple of chimps coming forward from the far side of their island toward the same climbing platform that Koebner's boat is fast approaching. ''Hey . . . remember me?'' Koebner keeps repeating in a soft, breathy voice to Swing and Doll, waiting now at the edge of the climbing platform. As the boat arrives, Koebner pauses a moment, then reaches across the prow and, within seconds, she is being enveloped, her slight frame slipping in and out of deep, alternating hugs from Swing and then Doll, each politely waiting turns for another embrace of their sobbing liberator.

Us and Them

The sophistication of the chimpanzee mind has been well documented in the near half-century since Jane Goodall's pioneering studies of chimps in the wild. Chimps learn and use American Sign Language. They have been taught to do math fractions and have demonstrated the intelligence level of a 5-year-old. They have a clear sense of self-awareness. Hold a mirror in front of a chimp with a toothache, and he'll immediately set about pulling back his gums to find which tooth it is that's hurting. Chimps feel sorrow and remorse. They will mourn the death of a friend or a relative. They are even thought now to have the rudiments of their own culture.

''When we went and started looking at different populations of chimps across Africa, we found variations in behavior that could not be explained in the usual biological ways,'' William McGrew, a field primatologist and professor of anthropology at Miami University in Ohio, told me. ''They are passing on behavioral patterns that seem to vary from place to place, and group to group, and from generation to generation, and we were sort of forced in a way into the cultural analogy as a way to explain it because the traditional biological ways for explaining it wouldn't suffice.''

Two years ago, McGrew, who has been observing chimps in the wilds of East, Central and West Africa for more than three decades, came upon a group of chimps in southeastern Senegal that were living in caves. ''No one had ever seen it before,'' he said. ''I mean, chimpanzees, you think of them swinging through the trees. But at the peak of the dry season, when it's very, very hot, these chimps retreat into the cooler caves, and they take food with them and have a siesta and a picnic.''

Clearly, the more we understand about the complexity of the chimpanzee, the more complicated keeping them -- be it for research or for our own amusement -- becomes. There was a certain innocence and naivete about our earliest containment and representation of them as conveyed in the anthropocentric framing of the first ape houses or movies like ''King Kong'' and ''Mighty Joe Young.'' Now, however, we and they seem to be caught somewhere between that original childlike exuberance over having them close to us and an increasingly subtle and discomfiting awareness of just how close to us, in every way, they actually are. We can see so clearly in the chimpanzee some former and formative version of ourselves that, if only as a further extension of the very vanity that led us to co-opt them in the first place, we are compelled to find them better and more civil accommodations.

Many established zoos have now erected habitat-minded enclosures that allow chimps some semblance of their natural social groupings and behavior. Privately financed sanctuaries, meanwhile, have sprung up across the country, even as private breeders go on churning out more chimps for entertainment or private ownership. In either role, chimps have only five to six years of viability before they grow too strong and willful to be controlled. Most of them end up spending the rest of their 45 to 50 years, on average, in breeding compounds, research lab facilities or roadside zoos. Even established zoos now regularly turn away former pet and entertainer chimps, because of their aberrant personalities and often antisocial behaviors.

I met a number of these chimps this past spring at a 100-acre sanctuary known as the Center for Great Apes in Wauchula, Fla., a veritable Hollywood Squares of washed-up ape actors, far more accustomed to humans and movie-set caterers' tables than to other monkeys and monkey chow. After I said hello to one 24-year-old, a former five-shows-a-day entertainer named Roger, he stood in his enclosure, thrust his chest forward and threw one arm straight up in the classic stage-show ''ta da!'' pose. Roger was originally trained for work in the Ringling Brothers circus. After his trainer retired, Roger ended up in a roadside zoo in Kissimee, Fla., called Jungleland, from which he was eventually rescued by the founder of the Center for Great Apes, Patti Ragan. Like many of Ragan's other charges, Roger has a number of odd behavioral tics and psychological scars that can contribute to sudden outbursts -- like those that characterized the much-publicized mauling this past winter by two retired entertainment chimps of a visitor to a California sanctuary.

''They will take an instant like or dislike to different people,'' Ragan told me, ''especially if they're loud, or if they talk to them in a certain way, or if they're domineering. Whenever Roger sees a tall, white-haired man of a certain type of build, he becomes incredibly frightened and goes into a screaming rage, banging his head. There's something in his history. It just sets him off. Sometimes, in the middle of the night here, when I have all the surveillance cameras on in the different enclosures, I'll get up for a drink of water, and I'll see Roger just sitting up alone in the dark, holding on to his cage, rocking.''

Monkey Purgatory

I witnessed pathologies similar to Roger's in the spring among the inhabitants of a former biomedical research facility known as the Coulston Foundation in Alamogordo, N.M. Each day near dusk on the treeless, sun-bitten outskirts of Alamogordo, the shrieking, cage-rattling clamor of captive chimpanzees fills the high-desert air. Suppertime is the usual catalyst. On the early April evening I showed up there, however, a stiff, unseasonably cold wind stirring dust and tumbleweed, it was the fast-spreading news of my approach that was setting off the occupants. My escort, Carole Noon, and I were still some 75 yards away from Building 700 -- the first in a series of eight long single-story chimp residences that make up Coulston's barrackslike compound -- when the ruckus began, a slow series of hoots quickly swelling to shrill screams followed by intense pounding, the same pattern repeating from building to building, off into the distance.

''How's our boy Ollie doing?'' Noon muttered into her walkie-talkie. Noon, a husky-voiced woman in her late 40's with piercing blue eyes and long, sandy-blond hair tied back beneath a Save the Chimps cap, was asking after a resident of Building 700 named Oliver, an adolescent male who had the cornea of his right eye badly scratched in a tussle with another chimp and needed to be anesthetized in order to be treated.

''Still sleeping,'' came the reply.

The better part of Building 700's facade was, like all the others at the facility, covered in thick sheets of plastic to hold in heat around the chimps' outer cages during the winter and early spring. I therefore didn't see the advance scout for the building's 59 other chimps until Noon and I were about to enter. He was a massive, thick-limbed male hovering directly above us, clutching to the uppermost reaches of his cell, trying to size me up through the same murky polymer prism that was rendering him a dark apparition, as if from some drug-induced dream.

''In the old days,'' Noon explained, ''they couldn't even go out in the cold months. Now they can at least be outside, and we can clean the inner cages.''

Of the captive chimpanzees in the United States about to enter into retirement, the greatest number of them don't live under federal auspices and are not on the way to Chimp Haven. They reside at the former Coulston Foundation, 260 chimps in all, the lot of them soon to become residents of Noon's Save the Chimps island sanctuary outside Fort Pierce, Fla. A 200-acre patch of former orange groves, the sanctuary is being expanded into a series of 12 three-acre islands to accommodate the influx.

Noon originally founded Save the Chimps back in 1997 when the United States Air Force -- which had been leasing its flight-training chimps to research labs since the early 70's -- decided to get out of the chimp business altogether. Offering its surplus inventory up for bids, the Air Force awarded most of the chimps to Frederick Coulston, a native New Yorker who was among the first scientists in the country to perform toxicology and physiology experiments on primates back in the 1940's. Coulston, who died in 2003, would go on to become the country's primate maven, owning well more than 600 chimps, then roughly half the nation's total, in the mid-90's. Noon, with the support of Jane Goodall and other prominent primatologists like the chimp sign-language specialist Roger Fouts, successfully sued the Air Force for custody of 21 of their former chimps on the grounds that they had not honored a commitment to fully safeguard their welfare. Meanwhile, she raised more than $2 million to erect her Fort Pierce sanctuary to house the chimps she had saved.

In 2002 the Coulston Foundation, having already lost its N.I.H. financing after a series of Animal Welfare Act violations led to the deaths of dozens of chimps, filed for bankruptcy. With the help of a $7 million grant from the Arcus Foundation, a philanthrophic organization with a broad range of causes, Noon acquired the Coulston facility and all 266 of its remaining residents (300 of the others ended up in another private facility). She moved into a 28-foot-long house trailer at the rear of the grounds and with the help of local contractors and Save the Chimps staff members set about trying to soften and brighten the place's many hard, dark edges. Half a million dollars was spent to remodel the cages alone, expanding them outward and upward, with overhead ''penthouses'' allowing the chimps their first views of the sky and of the nearby Sacramento Mountains. In the two and a half years since Noon took over, fairly hellish quarters have been upgraded to a kind of primate purgatory, where the occupants now await deliverance to their future island paradise.

''So,'' Noon said, showing me through the entrance to Building 700, ''you ready to be horrified?''

Seated before me on the cement floor of a narrow, rank-smelling ante-room to Building 700's main chimp cell block were Jocelyn Bezner, the staff veterinarian, and the staff caregiver, Jen Feuerstein, the two of them staring through the bars of a portable pen at the soundly sleeping Oliver. Bezner was holding one of Oliver's huge black, leathery fingers, which jutted out between the bars. I slowly sidled up to the cage and -- I suppose because I could -- grabbed another finger, gently squeezing the weighty, inordinate humanness of it.

Through the pair of swinging doors just behind us, Oliver's mates had by now worked themselves up into a full-fledged frenzy. Noon opened one of the doors to say hello and try to settle things down a bit. Inside was a picture of true bedlam: opposing rows of cages, 12 deep, chimps everywhere swaying and dashing, whooping and screeching. A chimp named Devon seemed to be the maestro of the mayhem, grabbing hold of the bars of the cage nearest the door, madly thrusting toward and away from them, screaming.

Just then I felt Oliver's finger twitch slightly in my palm, and suddenly he was sitting bolt upright, eyes wide. His face was fixed in a kind of hysterical grin that gradually expanded, as if trying to get more air, into a soundless, slow-motion version of a chimp's fright scream, finally culminating in a series of short, breathy, high-pitched squeals.

''It's O.K, it's O.K.,'' Bezner kept repeating to him softly, and then once more to the rest of us. ''He's just hallucinating.''

After a few moments, Oliver tilted back over to sleep, in spite of Building 700's racket. Noon signaled that we should leave to let things simmer down. As we were headed toward the door, Bezner went over to Devon's cell and in a beautiful, clear soprano, began bringing Devon and his fellow cellmates back down to earth with the Irving Berlin standard ''Cheek to Cheek'': ''Heaven, I'm in heaven. . . . ''

Chimps crave such attention. They also will go out of their way to get it, as I learned firsthand during the following day's tour. We started at the compound's former breeding building, Building 300, referred to now by Save the Chimps staff members simply as the dungeon. It was a similar arrangement of long, opposing rows of adjacent cement and steel cages, enclosures that, before Noon's modest renovations, were only slightly larger than the minimum 5 feet by 5 feet by 7 feet required, to this day, by federal law for the lifelong keeping of animals that grow as tall as 5 feet and weigh as much as 200 pounds. ''O.K., picture these cages,'' Noon said, narrating her way down the central corridor, ''but without penthouses, without the windows, without the hammocks, without the blankets, without the toys, without any enrichment. Just steel and cement boxes.''

Before we went in, Noon had us wait outside the set of rolling chain link gates at the head of the Building 300's cell block so that staff members could get the chimps to their outside cells, thus clearing the way for our passing. The building's occupants, however, were proving to be somewhat uncooperative that afternoon.

''Oh, no!,'' Noon said, scrunching up her shoulders and then calmly starting away from the front gates, revealing the feces-splattered back of her blue denim work shirt. Plum, a female chimp in one of the first cages, had somehow managed to peg Noon through an opening in the gates no wider than a foot. Within seconds, a worker at the back of the building was struggling his way toward us, head down, arms flailing, Plum's successful strike having set off a feces-flinging and water-spitting maelstrom. Chimps are remarkably good shots with both.

''They don't really like it,'' Noon said, dropping her work shirt into a washing machine in a staff laundry room just around the corner. ''Any normal chimp I know wipes their foot off when they step in it. But these chimps? Well . . . when you start thinking this is fun, it suggests a deep disturbance, and it's sick.''

Before heading back that afternoon to the Save the Chimps headquarters, where I'd avail myself of the staff lavatory for a quick stand-up bath, Noon took me to see the small cinder-block building in which toxicology experiments had been conducted. Inside were two large, adjacent cages. One side of each cage could collapse inward, making the cage about the width of a chimp, to facilitate the injection of whatever drug or disease was being tested. As I was peering inside one of the cages, Noon shut the building door. The place went pitch dark.

''O.K.,'' she said. ''Your number's up. You're called in for research. If you're lucky you've got a guy next door. You've got a squeezable cage and you're getting a drug in ever increasing doses to see what happens. And that's your life.''

As we were leaving, Noon noticed me staring at the only other fixture in the room, what looked for all the world like one of those elevated, wall-mounted TV stands you see in hospital rooms.

''You got it,'' Noon said, walking off. ''That was their enrichment. It's amazing they're not more maniacal than they are.''

The Research Quandary

''That one there is a chimpanzee brain,'' Patrick Hof, a professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan told me one afternoon this past winter, the two of us standing in a giant walk-in cooler of brains just down the hallway from his office. On the same shelf as the chimp brain (''about half the size of an adult human's,'' as Hof described it) were those of gorillas and orangutans, each one adrift in glass containers of formaldehyde. On a separate set of shelves at the rear of the cooler was an assortment of marine-animal brains: dolphin, porpoise, killer whale. Just below them, at the base of a huge Rubbermaid garbage pail, was a sperm-whale brain, like the one housed in Moby-Dick's skull. It was about the circumference of a cafe table. On the shelves opposite the chimp and gorilla specimens were a number of human ones.

An expert in aging and its effects on the brain, Hof is an unexpected beneficiary of today's chimp boom. Chimps in captivity live about twice as long as those in the wild do. Males in the wild rarely make it to 30, owing to the wilderness's daily stresses and conflicts. Most captive chimps, by contrast, are now not only reaching human retirement ages; they are also developing all the same attendant ailments: arthritis, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, obesity. Everything, it seems, except for brain disorders like Alzheimer's and dementia.

''They prove to be a real problem of geriatric veterinary medicine,'' Hof explained, referring to the aged chimps, ''and yet at the same time they offer an extraordinary opportunity for us to learn more about the evolution of aging. And it may well be a unique opportunity, because I don't think there will be that many more generations of chimpanzees behind the current ones, because it's just too complicated and expensive to keep them.''

In fact, our increasing appreciation of the chimpanzee's bioevolutionary complexity may be bringing us to the point where the most significant knowledge we can gain from chimps is best obtained simply by letting them be themselves, either in what's left of their natural habitat or in or our best re-creations of it. In a sense, the saga of our keeping of the chimps has now come full circle. The chimps themselves have become the edifying mirror of the old ape houses. They are offering us the best view into our own nature. Indeed, much of the work being done now with chimps is focused on behavioral and neurological science, where researchers from a variety of disciplines, from evolutionary biology to neurology, are often engaged in observational studies in which the healthier and more natural the environment is for the chimp, the more reliable and useful are the results.

For some, however, the chimp remains an indispensable tool for medical research, and some have expressed fears that by endorsing the retirement of even a select number of chimps, the government might be opening the doors to their removal from research altogether. Stuart Zola, director of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, fully supports animal sanctuaries but argues that there will always be a need to study chimpanzees. ''The only thing we can predict with certainty is that there are going to be new epidemics that will arise, as they have throughout history, and the chimp is going to be a unique animal model.''

Joe Erwin, a former curator of primates at the Brookfield Zoo in suburban Chicago, who for the past three years has worked as an independent consultant to research labs looking to improve their facilities, also cites the continuing importance of chimps for research. ''That chimpanzees can be surplus to research needs strikes me as quite unlikely and shortsighted,'' he told me. ''It is my impression that there is no chimpanzee on earth from which humans cannot learn something useful -- without in any way compromising the health or well-being of any individual chimpanzee.''

There are several major facilities that still have chimpanzees -- Yerkes; Southwest in San Antonio; the Alamogordo Primate Facility situated on the grounds of the Holloman Air Force Base some 15 miles from the former Coulston Foundation; the Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research in Bastrop, Tex.; Bioqual, a biomedical facility in Rockville, Md.; and the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana, the world's largest chimpanzee lab. Of these, not one is quite so bleak as the former Coulston Foundation. Each has made efforts to give chimps at least some outdoor access and group interaction, as well as various enrichment and behavioral care from trained primatologists.

Still, both the Alamogordo Primate Facility and New Iberia have been targets of recent lawsuits involving animal rights violations, and both cases are still pending. And while overall standards at research facilities have been improving over the years, there is no getting around the inherent constraints and hardships on both the chimps and those who work with them on a daily basis. It is no coincidence that a number of the people now involved in the retiring of chimps were former employees of research labs. ''Most people end up leaving because they can't do it anymore,'' Jen Feuerstein, a former staff member at Yerkes, told me. ''They can't be the bad guy anymore. If a chimp is on study, you have to participate. You have to separate a young chimp from its mother and send him or her to the main center for research. A lot of people sort of seal themselves off and stop caring because it's too painful to care. They go and do the bare minimum to keep the chimps alive, and then they go home.''

There is no handy list of the dividends gained over the years from chimp research, and many of the results are mixed. In the early 1930's, long before ethical restrictions were imposed on research techniques, a good number of chimps were sacrificed to various brain-mapping and other invasive approaches that yielded a great deal of early data on the evolution of the primate brain. On the other hand, notwithstanding the early heroics of the Air Force's chimpanauts, it is most likely that the space program would have gone ahead as planned without them, as would the use of seat belts, for the early trials of which a number of Air Force chimps were reportedly used as living crash-test dummies in the early 60's.

In 1996, after several injections with H.I.V., one chimp at Yerkes named Jerome did finally develop AIDS, but it was a mutated strain that proved to be of little value in the search for a cure in humans. Jerome became so sick that he was eventually euthanized. Important information, however, was gained in early testing about the pathogenesis of the disease and the use of therapeutic antibodies, and a limited number of previously infected chimps are still being used for H.I.V. research in an attempt to understand precisely why chimpanzees are so resistant to developing AIDS, information that could prove of some use to humans. But one of the greatest recent rewards of chimp research has been the hepatitis-B vaccine. Strides are also currently being made toward developing vaccines for hepatitis C and respiratory syncytial virus (R.S.V.), which is potentially lethal in newborn babies.

''In an ideal world they'd all be swinging in the forests of Africa,'' McGrew, the field primatologist, said to me. ''But I can understand how they got into labs, and I'd be a hypocrite if I said that I haven't benefited from it. I take the hepatitis vaccine developed from chimpanzees before I go to Africa to study them.''

Some scientists, however, say that they believe we might soon effect an ideal solution to the chimp-research quandary, thanks to some of the very technological advances that chimps have helped to foster. For instance, scientists at Washington University in St. Louis and M.I.T. are completing the mapping of an entire chimp genome. It belonged to a chimp named Clint, a longtime Yerkes resident who recently died of heart disease. Many scientists now say that the use of the DNA database and human tissue samples will obviate the need for research on chimps or any other animal, the results of which, they argue, are often misleading and inapplicable to humans. The recently appointed scientific director of Europeans for Medical Progress, Jarrod Bailey, is now leading a campaign to end research on animals, not on the basis of animal rights but rather on the grounds that such methods are by and large archaic and have prevented scientists from making the best use of new technologies.

''We are a very technological species,'' Carole Noon said to me at Save the Chimps in Alamogordo. ''We can come up with something better. Something less cruel.''

Looking at the Stars

Every other week or so from now until early next winter, a specially outfitted trailer like the ones that delivered Rita and Teresa and their fellow research chimps to Chimp Haven will make the two-and-a-half-day journey from the former Coulston Foundation in New Mexico to Noon's island paradise outside Fort Pierce, Fla., delivering 10 chimps at a time until all 260 have been transported.

The day after my tour of Coulston, I flew with Noon to Florida to have a look at her compound there. Set in the midst of a flat expanse of orange groves and swampland is a huge island of verdant knolls, jungle-gym platforms, suspended catwalks and earthen culverts, dotted with shrubbery and trees and huge black blobs, which, as we pulled up in a golf cart to one fenced-off corner of the island, suddenly began to move, gamboling toward us in near-upright, front-fisted strides.

''Just to have that option of running,'' Noon said, gesturing at the chimps. ''That's what tickles me so much about this property. It's one of the prettiest places in all of Florida, and guess who's moving in. Not rich people.''

I found it a bit disconcerting at first to see the chimps in such a setting. It wasn't just the complete anomaly of chimpanzees swinging and striding against a backdrop of Florida orange trees. Somehow getting even the merest glimpse into their actual selves only further distinguishes them and diminishes us. A diminishment accentuated, in this case, by the fact that these chimps appeared to be so much larger than the ones back in New Mexico, for the most part because they've all got most of their health and hair back.

''That guy Waylan,'' Noon said, pointing to an outsize male muscling his way toward us, then settling alongside a female named Dana, ''is the largest chimp I've ever known. And the sweetest. Waylan is very shy. Born in captivity. Didn't know how to be around other chimps. So when it was time to get Waylan to meet somebody, I said to myself, Who out of all these people can he meet? And I thought, Dana. She's 42, born in Africa, and she's so socially sophisticated. So nice. So I open the door to let them meet. Waylan's afraid. She climbs up and sits in the doorway. She looks at Waylan and literally takes his chin in her hand and lifts his face so he can look at her. That's Dana. She is the queen.''

Lunch hour for the Save the Chimps staff members that afternoon soon gave way to lunch hour for the chimps. We were sitting at a picnic table beside the compound's headquarters when Noon stood up and clanged an old-fashioned ranch dinner bell hanging from a post just overhead. She waited a moment and rang it again.

''That did it,'' she said. ''Here they come.''

Off in the distance, we could see the black blobs move again, row upon row of them, coming across the island's grassy mounds, past the strung catwalks and huge platform jungle gyms, toward the chimps' central housing quarters. Noon and I and some of the staff members started over to meet them. Once all the chimps had made their way inside, the feasting began, chunks of fresh cucumbers and carrots and oranges giving off, in stark contrast to Coulston, the strongest aromas in the place.

''The difference is pretty amazing,'' said one staff member, Chance French, a former employee of Noon's at Alamogordo. ''A lot of the chimps we bring from New Mexico will be balding. But the minute you bring them here they stop plucking. They stop smearing feces around. It's 100 percent better.''

French told me that during the back-to-back hurricanes that walloped Florida last year, he and the other staff members took all the chimps there into the main housing quarters and laid in food and blankets and supplies for everyone, and, side by side in adjacent cells, human and chimp rode out the storms together. ''The first hurricane, we were there for two nights,'' he recalled. ''It was a weaker storm but very slow-moving. Kept going and going. The second hurricane was one night. Through both storms, I expected the chimps to be more alarmed, but they were mostly passed out, sleeping, and we were wide awake, glued to the radio.''

After lunch, Noon made sure all the doors leading back outside from the chimp's housing were secure, so that staff members could clean up the island, much of it strewn with toys, baby dolls, plastic buckets, wheel carts and so on, like a vast kids' playground. Noon took that opportunity to escort me across the island, out to the very center. It felt oddly exhilarating: we were in their place now, on their footing, and on the horizon around us were the 11 other soon-to-be-completed islands, each with its own pastel-hued housing, all the colors bright and upbeat -- ''everything as different from Coulston as possible,'' Noon said. ''No associations.''

As we started back across the island toward the chimp's quarters, Noon recalled a night back at Coulston when, after the renovations to the cages had been completed, the chimps were allowed to move into their outer enclosures and could see the dark desert sky for the first time. Until then, they had been locked inside each day by 4 p.m. As she sat on the steps of her trailer that night at the back of the facility grounds, Noon said she could hear all of the buildings talking. Everyone was talking.

''I understood some of it,'' she said. ''It was, Look at the stars, and Look at the moon, and What do you think all of that is about? and How long is it going to last? But then they started saying something I didn't understand. I struggled to make sense of what it was. And here's what I think they were saying. They were announcing themselves to the world. They were saying, We live here. We exist.''

Charles Siebert is a contributing writer and the author, most recently, of ''A Man After His Own Heart: A True Story.''

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