Saturday, November 16, 2002


Working for chimp change

[Photo] Chimps [who] had been used for research eat a treat of watermelon rinds recently at the Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care near Fort Pierce. Dr. Carole Noon, a biological anthropologist, founded the center as a refuge for the chimps, most of whom have spent their lives as test subjects for the space program or medical research.

By COLETTE BANCROFT, Times Staff Writer © St. Petersburg Times published November 15, 2002

Inspired by Jane Goodall, Dr. Carole Noon creates a home for ''retired'' chimpanzees where they can eat, sleep, and generally give an opposable thumbs-up to their private island....

The Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care is tucked amid orange groves and cattle ranches in western St. Lucie County. From nearby roads, you would never know it was there, and that's the intention.

The center is not a zoo. At this point it's not open to the public at all, although there are plans for a museum and education center. Its purpose is to provide a sanctuary where chimps who cannot be released in the wild can live out their lives in a semblance of natural conditions.

"The idea is for these chimps to be chimps," Noon says. "They've earned it."

Seeing 20 adult chimpanzees from a few yards away is an amazing experience, even though there are two fences between them and the humans watching them, an industrial-strength fence about 20 feet high and a shorter one to keep the resident dogs and careless visitors away from the chimps' fingers.

These are formidable animals. Forget those darling baby chimps in diapers that make everyone want one for a pet. They outgrow that stage much faster than human babies do; by age 3, a chimp is as strong as an adult human.

These adolescents and adults range in age from 10 to 41. They weigh 90 to 170 pounds, stand approximately 5 feet tall, have a reach a prizefighter would envy and, as is clear when a couple of them start squabbling, boast a scary set of teeth....

It's hard to say which is more of a curse: chimps' similarities to humans or their differences. They share much more with us than expressive faces, intense social relationships, tool use and opposable thumbs. Our DNA and theirs are 98.6 percent the same; they are more closely related to us than they are to gorillas or orangutans.

They are so similar to humans in size and physiology that they have long been considered invaluable research subjects. They are different enough -- that 1.4 percent -- that researchers could justify treating them in ways no human test subject would be treated....