Monday, October 22, 2012

Alamogordo: Chimpanzee History

Credit: Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

A legacy of Alamogordo's role in space exploration are hundreds of chimpanzees that underwent decades of experimentation and, at times, severe maltreatment. Until December 2011 there were two chimpanzee communities in Alamogordo: one at the Holloman Air Force Base and one in Alamogordo proper.

Between 2005 and 2011, the 266 chimps in Alamogordo proper were relocated to the Save the Chimps sanctuary in Florida, with the last of them migrating in December 2011. Between 2002 and that final migration, Save the Chimps managed the Alamogordo chimpanzee facility.

Vacant Alamogordo chimp facility, for sale. October 2012. New Mexico.

Vacant Alamogordo chimp facility, for sale. October 2012. New Mexico.

There are around 172 chimps at the Alamogordo Primate Facility on Holloman Air Force Base. All have been exposed to HIV, Hepatitis C, or other microorganisms. They currently do not undergo any biomedical testing. Their future is uncertain.   

But to go back in time ... 

The space program: 1959

Ham and Enos

Ham and Enos were the first and second chimps in space, respectively.

In 1959, Ham was captured in Africa (Cameroon?) as an infant, and brought to Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo. (Note: Capturing a primate infant often required killing its mother.)

I've read conflicting reports about Enos' origins.   

Ham, the first chimp in space.

A clip about Ham, the first chimp into space, from Nature's documentary called Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History (~ 3 minutes):

A 1960s newsreel about Ham (~ 9 minutes):

Ham lived til the age of 25. Some of his remains are in Alamogordo, buried at Alamogordo's Space Museum.

Ham's grave at Space History Museum, Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Ham's grave at Space History Museum, Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Enos, the second chimp in space, died of dysentery one year after his trip to space.

This November 29, 2011, Atlantic article describes Enos' sad story: The Horrible Thing That Happened to Enos the Chimp When He Orbited Earth 50 Years Ago.

Enos, the second chimp in space.

1950s to 1970s

From a letter from New Mexico's Governor Richardson to the USDA on November 18, 2010:

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. His foundation’s tenure was marred by charges of severe mistreatment.

In 1970, the Institute of Comparative and Human Toxicology, overseen by Frederick Coulston, and under the aegis of Albany Medical College in New York, assumed management of the chimpanzees at the Alamogordo Primate Facility at the Holloman Air Force base.  Thus began an era of empire-building; improper business and lab practices; and, at best, animal mismanagement, at worst, animal abuse.  

The chimpanzees, still owned by the Air Force and housed on the Air Force base, were leased out for medical research.

1980s to 1997

Frederick Coulston. Credit: ScienceMag
In 1980, Mr. Coulston opened his own primate facility in Alamogordo proper (on La Velle Road), called the White Sands Research Center, under the auspices of an organization he established, called the Coulston International Corporation.

So now there were two primate facilities in Alamogordo - one at the nearby Air Force base and one at the edge of town. 

From Lethal Kinship:

"That same year (1980), Albany Medical College transferred management of Holloman’s primate research center to New Mexico State University (NMSU) and offered NMSU use of the original buildings under an Air Force lease set to expire in 2000. Under NMSU’s management, the New Mexico State University Regional Primate Research Laboratory (RPRL) evolved.  The federal government pumped $10 million into the project to create housing for approximately 288 chimpanzees."  

Over at White Sands Research Center on La Velle Road, Mr. Coulston, a toxicologist, wanted to operate the largest primate research facility in the world.

This goal proved convenient for NMSU in the 1990s, after NMSU concluded that: 
  • There were more chimpanzees in the research market than were needed; 
  • Chimpanzees live for more than 50 years; 
  • Chimpanzees are expensive to maintain; and
  • NMSU's chimpanzee operation was not self-supporting. 

In other words, NMSU's return on its investment was in the red and it was only going to get worse.

In 1993, NMSU and Mr. Coulston entered into an agreement whereby Mr. Coulston created a new entity, CICNP, and took over management of the chimpanzees at the Holloman Air Force base.

Mr. Coulston, in the same year, created The Coulston Foundation, which perhaps served as the umbrella organization over CIC and CICNP, or as a separate entity. I'm unclear on this.  

By this time, the reputation of Mr. Coulston's laboratory practices vis a vis animal management was poor. A number of animal protection organizations advocated against his enterprise, including: 

In 1993, then, The Coulston Foundation controlled both primate facilities in Alamogordo. There were more than 500 chimps in total that the foundation either owned or leased.

There were other research primate facilities in the U.S. They had the same ROI issues as NMSU did. In 1995, New York University's Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP) gave The Coulston Foundation 99 chimpanzees and almost $2 million, with the intent to give the remaining 101 chimps to the foundation, as well.

But there was an outcry from the animal protection organizations, who cited The Coulston Foundation's dismal animal treatment record. Dr. Jane Goodall, arguably the world's foremost champion of chimpanzees, also worked to prevent the transfer. One of the LEMSIP doctors, James Mahoney, a leader in a heroic rescue operation, found sanctuaries for and transported LEMSIP's remaining chimps to sanctuaries.

New York Times, August 7, 1995: Animal Advocates Protest Plans for a Primate Lab
New York Times, August 10, 1995: Chimp Research is Taken Over by Foundation

In 1999, National Geographic's Explorer series ran an episode about Dr. Mahoney's rescue, called Chimp Rescue. Go here for a three-minute clip of that episode. It begins, "In the dead of night ..."

Through the 90s, The Coulston Foundation continued to rack up citations for animal mistreatment and violations against good laboratory practices.

In 1998, it all came to a head.

The Air Force requested bids for the purchase of its 141 chimpanzees (the ones that had been leased to The Coulston Foundation). It gave the award to The Coulston Foundation, despite the multitudinous findings by the USDA and other entities of poor laboratory practices or animal mistreatment.

The Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care (CCCC) (now Save the Chimps) sued the Air Force. With Dr. Goodall and Roger Fouts on its board, there was plenty of muscle to bring to bear on the Air Force.

The result in 1998 was that the Air Force agreed to award 21 of the chimpanzees to the CCCC's sanctuary in Florida. Nevertheless, the 111 others went to The Coulston Foundation as originally planned.  

Money woes, legal troubles, and laboratory violations citations were piling up on The Coulston Foundation. After the suit against the Air Force, The Coulston Foundation's demise was only a matter of time.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) come under heavy criticism for awarding The Coulston Foundation research grants despite its knowledge about animal maltreatment, despite the serious charges levied against it by the USDA, and despite the fact that TCF was not accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care.


The Coulston Foundation was about to go under financially and functionally, having lost research grants and essential staff.

The USDA and FDA cited The Coulston Foundation for regulatory violations regarding laboratory practices and animal management.

NIH, inexplicably, seemed to be operating with some sort of bunker mentality as it continued to support The Coulston Foundation despite all of the evidence of TCF's failure as a viable laboratory.

The number of chimpanzees who died hideous (or, at best, unnecessary) deaths continued to climb.

2000 - present

Holloman facility (Alamogordo Primate Facility)

In 2000, NIH awarded management of the primate facility at Holloman to Charles River.

Although medical research was no longer to occur at the Alamogordo Primate Facility, the chimpanzees were available for lease to other research facilities

In 2003, Dr. James Mahoney (yes, the very same LEMSIP hero) testified before Congress about Charles River's maltreatment of two chimpanzees at the Alamogordo Primate Facility, both of which died. Here is his testimony. It's important to note that although Dr. Mahoney testified regarding two specific chimpanzees, the testimony's overall message was about the general polices and processes of Charles Rivers that endangered all of the chimpanzees.  

In 2010, NIH (apologies for the cliche) unleashed a firestorm of protest when it announced its plans to close down the Alamogordo Primate Facility by sending all of its 202 inhabitants to the Southwest National Primate Research Center in Texas for recall into invasive biomedical research.  Even the New Mexico governor at the time, Bill Richardson, registered his protest in this letter to the USDA, asking the agency to execute a cease and desist order against NIH.

In January 2011, NIH did, indeed, suspend its plan (but not before some chimpanzees had already been transferred) pending a decision re: the continued value of invasive biomedical testing on primates. The U.S. Senate asked the Institute of Medicine to study this issue.

In December 2011, the Institute of Medicine "concludes that while the chimpanzee has been a valuable animal model in the past, most current biomedical research use of chimpanzees is not necessary, though made clear that it is impossible to predict whether research on emerging or new diseases may necessitate chimpanzees in the future."

On December 15, 2011, NIH placed a moratorium on all NIH-funding biomedical research on primates. NIH formed the Working Group on the Use of Chimpanzees in NIH-Supported Research, which continues to meet. Its final report is anticipated to be given in early 2013.

So. The status of the chimpanzees and the Alamogordo Primate Facility at present, per the Working Group's FAQ:  
"The Alamogordo chimpanzees will continue as an inactive research colony. NIH will await deliberation from the Council of Councils working group to further consider where these animals will be housed and cared for."
Charles River continues to manage the Alamogordo Primate Facility. 


The Coulston Foundation facility on La Velle Road 

In 2002, CCCC (aka Save the Chimps) bought The Coulston Foundation's Alamogordo facility for over $3 million. The 266 chimps were thrown in for free. The CCCC immediately removed the chimps from all research activities.

Thanks to a grant from the Arcus Foundation, Save the Chimps was able to buy the facility. Save the Chimps also built an island-based sanctuary for the chimpanzees in Fort Pierce, Florida. Here is the story of Save the Chimp's founder, Dr. Carole Noon, and the Arcus Foundation founder, Jon Stryker

Beginning in 2004 and ending December 2011, Save the Chimps migrated all of the chimps to the Florida sanctuary.

"For Sale: Infamous Chimp Lab"  

From the December 11, 2011, El Paso, Inc. article, For Sale: Infamous Chimp Lab:
"When the last of the Alamogordo proper chimps migrated to the Florida sanctuary, Save the Chimps put the old chimp lab up for sale. At one time, it housed one of the largest research chimp population in the world, up to 650 chimpanzees."  

The facility is near the intersection of Highways 70 and 54 on La Velle Road (off of Highway 70), across from a large baking operation.

What an epic story.

January 23, 2013: See update here

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