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Air Force and activists wage war over chimps

Should they be retired or used for biomedical research?

Every grade-school student in the US knows why John Glenn is a hero.

But they know next to nothing about a little fellow named Enos, who blazed the way for the American astronaut's historic orbit of the earth in 1962.

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Enos is the chimpanzee who rode a Mercury space capsule twice around the planet two months before Mr. Glenn's flight. He was one of 65 chimpanzees pressed into service by the United States Air Force and NASA in the early 1960s to help open the way for manned space travel. Their accomplishment was no less than proving to mankind it was possible.

Now, almost 40 years later, such "astrochimps" and their descendants are no longer wanted or needed by the US government. So the question arises: What should be done with them?

Animal rights activists and primatologists have been pushing to have the chimps sent to proposed sanctuaries where they could live the rest of their lives in peace.

"These chimpanzees have been used by the US and in medical research for the benefit of humans," says Jennifer Lindsey, Jane Goodall Institute spokeswoman in Washington, D.C. "They are involuntary research participants. The time has come to let them have a peaceful retirement."

A biomedical research group, the Coulston Foundation of Alamogordo, N.M., doesn't see it that way. They say the chimps are still enormously valuable as research subjects and should be tested further, developing vaccines for various diseases and studying the aging process in humans.

"From our perspective all ... of our chimpanzees are heroes, and we think of them that way," says Don McKinney, a Coulston spokesman. "They are sort of our first line of defense in this war that is being waged against disease."

Air Force angers activists

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Of 141 surviving "astrochimps" and their descendants, the Air Force has decided to send 30 chimpanzees to a retirement sanctuary in Texas and 111 to the Coulston Foundation.

That decision by the Air Force has sparked a federal lawsuit in Washington, where animal rights activists are asking a judge to overturn the Coulston award.

They say Congress wanted the Air Force to consider the overall welfare of the chimpanzees in deciding where they would be located. There is no comparison, they say, between residing with other chimpanzees in a sanctuary and living as caged subjects of biomedical experiments. In addition, they say, Coulston has a questionable record in its treatment of chimpanzees with eight chimp deaths being investigated since 1995.

Mr. McKinney says Coulston's 650 chimps get excellent attention. "We've been caring for chimps for many years with relatively few problems."

Activists acknowledge the weak point of their bid was a shortage of existing facilities and funding to care for the retiring chimpanzees. A chimp can live for 40 to 50 years and cost about $10 a day to feed and house. A hundred chimpanzees living 40 years would cost roughly $15 million.

Chimpanzees are valued as research subjects because they are similar in many ways to humans. Scientists say they share 98.5 percent of the human genetic makeup. But that sameness also prompts opposition to research using chimpanzees.

"The very similarities that make chimpanzees ideal research subjects raise ethical questions about their use in the name of human progress," says well-known primatologist Jane Goodall in court documents filed in the case.

One 'heck of a brave chimp'

Many activists point to the astrochimp Enos and his historic 1962 space flight to make their point.

At the time of Enos's flight, scientists weren't sure whether the effects of weightlessness and the stresses of space travel would allow an astronaut to think clearly and perform basic motor skills. So the scientists rigged Enos's space capsule with a series of warning lights and levers to test the chimpanzee's ability to concentrate and function during the flight.

Enos's instructions were that every time a warning light went on he was to push and pull a series of levers. If he did it within a designated time frame he would receive a banana pellet reward. If he waited too long or got the wrong sequence he would receive an electric shock.

Enos had trained for a year in preparation for the flight. But something went terribly wrong after liftoff. A stabilizing rocket on his Mercury capsule malfunctioned, causing the space craft to roll over and over as it circled the earth. And that wasn't the only problem. Somehow the wires got crossed on his lever-reward system. Instead of getting a banana pellet reward for his correctly pulling the lever, Enos received a punishing electric shock.

When mission scientists back on earth realized what was happening in the capsule, they assumed Enos would do whatever was necessary to avoid the shock and receive a banana pellet. He surprised them all. He carried out his mission without regard to the necessary pain, enduring 79 shocks for each of his correct responses.

"He knew what the correct responses were," says Wally Swett, a chimpanzee expert who runs Primarily Primates, a sanctuary in Texas. "He was just one heck of a brave chimp."

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