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Sanctuary chimpanzees bear mental and physical scars of being used for research

FORT PIERCE — After spending most of his life caged in a research lab, Bobby, a 28-year-old chimpanzee has self-mutilated his arm for years.

Bobby arrived at the Save the Chimps sanctuary in February of last year from a former biomedical research lab in Alamogordo, N.M., which shut down and was notorious for repeated violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

Save the Chimps is a 150-acre sanctuary in western Fort Pierce that provides retirement for chimps used in research, the entertainment industry and pet trade. Founded by the late Dr. Carole Noon, it’s the largest sanctuary in the world for rescued chimpanzees. The chimps live on 12 islands surrounded by moats of water and are free to roam as they please.

The sanctuary is funded by the Arcus Foundation in Kalamazoo, Mich., and through donations.

Like many of the primates used in animal testing, Bobby spent his days isolated in a small, barren concrete “box” unable to socialize with other chimps. The self-mutilation is a result of years of trauma the animal suffered at the hands of humans, said Save the Chimps sanctuary Director Jen Feuerstein.

“He started doing it at 9 or 10 years old,” Feuerstein said. “He does still mutilate his arm, but now it’s more in the form of picking at it or digging at the skin. His arm is very scarred.”

Many of the chimps at the sanctuary were rescued from the now shuttered Coulston Foundation lab in New Mexico, which had its funding stripped by the federal government and then went bankrupt. Save the Chimps took over the lab and spruced it up until it could relocate the chimps to Fort Pierce. There are still 43 remaining chimps in New Mexico waiting to join the 239 chimps at the Fort Pierce sanctuary.

Some of the chimps were used in the U.S. Air Force’s space program.

Gromek, who resides at the sanctuary, was born in the wild in Africa and captured as an infant from his mother. He arrived at Holloman Air Force Base in February 1965 and was used in parasite and eye refraction studies in which electrodes were placed in his head. He also was used in various blood studies in which he was tranquilized at times for up to three hours. Additionally, he also underwent liver and kidney biopsies.

When he retired to the sanctuary in 2000 it was the first time in nearly 40 years that Gromek had been outside a concrete cage.

Boy, another chimp at the sanctuary, was found living alone in a laboratory building dubbed “The Dungeon” because of its dark and “miserable” conditions, according to the sanctuary. He showed signs of depression and had little interest in his surroundings. He spent the bulk of his life alone. He was anesthetized at least 175 times over 20 years and endured nearly 20 liver biopsies, according to the sanctuary.

For some, such as Nuri, born in a research lab in the 1960s, the emotional trauma of enduring almost a lifetime of being caged and tested on leaves unforgettable scars.

“She’s been in Florida for over a year,” Feuerstein said. “Her knees are permanently bent. We think because she was so confined and restrictive in her movement, and she just does not want to go outside.

“Pumpkin did go outdoors when he was first released on the island, but he didn’t want to let go of the building. He needed to hang on to that. He needed that security. Since then, he’s been seen venturing further and further and closer and closer to the island.

“Even though we have the chimps who have clearly emotional trauma that they’re coping with, what’s remarkable about chimps is they’re able to forgive humans,” Feuerstein said. “And most of them seem to be able to put their past behind them and just sort of move forward with their lives. They’re hopeful and grateful and positive, so I really respect them for being able to do that.”


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