New Book ‘Opening Doors’ Focuses on the Work of Save the Chimps
Last October, Terry the chimpanzee found himself without a home when the Las Vegas Zoo — where he had been living without any chimp companionship for 18 years — closed its doors. Jen Feuerstein, director of Save the Chimps, a Fort Pierce, Fla., chimpanzee sanctuary, was alerted to Terry’s situation by “a flurry of text messages” from the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance. Feuerstein traveled to Las Vegas to meet Terry, and within days he was on his way to a new life.
Today, Terry lives at Save the Chimps with 250 other chimpanzees retired or rescued from animal testing labs, unaccredited zoos, breeding facilities and the entertainment industry.
The Story of Save the Chimps
While Terry’s rescue made headlines across the country, Save the Chimps has been living up to its name since 1997 when founder Dr. Carole Noon, PhD, decided to construct a sanctuary — and create a new life — for former U.S. Air Force research chimpanzees who had been deemed “surplus equipment.” Noon, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2009, rescued hundreds of chimps during her tenure at Save the Chimps. A new book by conservationist Gary Ferguson, Opening Doors, tells the amazing story of Noon and Save the Chimps.
Overflowing with engaging photos and fascinating asides about life at Save the Chimps, Opening Doors begins with the story of how Noon came of age at the same time as America’s space program. Chimps figure prominently in both of these narratives. Many of the Air Force “Astrochimps” originally obtained for space training were eventually leased out to laboratories for disease studies — or worse — and it was this that led Noon to her life’s work. Ferguson traces how Noon’s passion for chimps broke down bureaucratic and legal obstacles to rescue these animals and give them a loving home. Save the Chimps offered a second chance for animals deemed too afraid or even too brain-damaged to socialize with each other. Ferguson shares the heartwarming stories of how these animals formed chimp families for the first time at the sun-drenched sanctuary Noon’s persistence built.
Feuerstein, who worked with Noon before her death, says her favorite part of Ferguson’s book is the first chapter, which details the life of the extraordinary founder of Save the Chimps. Noon “didn’t talk much about her childhood or even her early professional years,” Feuerstein says. “Her mind was solely on chimps and the present job at hand. I enjoyed reading about other people’s memories and stories of her, which helped to bring her back to life in my mind. I also love all of the photos — they capture the beauty and personalities of the chimps so well.”
Making a Difference for Chimps
The work Noon began when she founded Save the Chimps is not finished yet, although things have changed. Conditions are improving for chimps in captivity, Feuerstein says, because “folks are learning how the chimps are treated in these industries, and they don’t like it.” The number of chimps exposed to potential abuse and neglect is declining, in part because actors, writers, advertising agencies and corporations are pledging to not use live trained chimps in film or advertising. In addition, the National Institutes of Health announced last year that it would significantly reduce the use of chimpanzees in research and would retire some 300 chimpanzees. That’s a step in the right direction, but there’s more work to be done, Feuerstein says. “Out of the 2,000 or so chimpanzees in captivity in the U.S., probably about half are in need of better living conditions and/or better care and treatment.”
We spoke with Feuerstein about Ferguson’s book and got an update on Terry and some of the other chimps in her care.
Q. What was it about Carole Noon that allowed her to accomplish so much for chimps?
A. Dr. Carole Noon was one of the most hardworking, passionate and tenacious human beings I have ever met. When she set her mind on something, she put her heart and soul into achieving that goal. Fortunately for the chimps, she set her sights on providing chimpanzees in need with the professional care and dignified retirement they deserve. She inspired others to care as much for chimpanzees as she did and to use their talents — whether it was construction, fundraising or legal expertise — to help make Save the Chimps a reality.
Q. How is Terry doing now?
A. It’s pretty incredible to see the progress he’s made in such a short time — especially after 18 years without seeing another chimpanzee. The first month he was wary both of his caregivers and other chimps. His first introduction to another sweet guy named J.R. didn’t go as we had hoped — Terry was very scared and rejected J.R.’s offers of friendship. But a female named Indie finally cracked his steely exterior. When Terry made it clear he did not want to interact with her, she basically said, “Fine. Have it your way!” and proceeded to do her own thing. Gradually, he became comfortable around her, and one day he let her groom him, and he groomed her. It was the breakthrough he needed.
Q. Some of the original chimpanzees rescued after their Air Force service are still living at Save the Chimps. Can you tell us about them?
A. Garfield was the youngest male, a mischievous teenager at the time, who came with the original Air Force group. Not all of the elder males in the group appreciated Garfield’s antics. He worshipped one older male, though — Marty. Marty was a kindly, mellow guy, and Garfield adored him. Garfield sometimes teased the other older chimps in the group, but never Marty. When Marty passed away, Garfield was by his side. Garfield learned a lot from Marty, I think, because he eventually stopped teasing other chimps and transformed into a leader. He knows how to be firm but kind. He’s also a great dad to his daughter, Angie, and his son, J.B., who looks just like him!
Lil Mini, the youngest of the Air Force chimpanzees, was only 8 when she was rescued in 2001. Though grown up, she still has a goofy, fun-loving personality — doing somersaults just for the heck of it. It’s impossible to know what is really going on in her head, but she seems to have a really positive outlook on life. She loves her island and spends hardly any time indoors.
Q. Which chimpanzee has gone through the most radical change since arriving at Save the Chimps?
A. It’s hard to choose one, but Moesha has changed so much sometimes I hardly recognize her. When we rescued Moesha, she was thin, pale and had a very thin coat of hair. She would scream, rock and clutch blankets to herself for comfort. Even the lab she came from had placed her on an antidepressant. We introduced her to another female, Alari, and they became very good friends, but I honestly wondered if she would ever make it in a social group. She would get upset so easily, and you really have to be kind of tough to make it in a chimpanzee group.
I’m happy to say Moesha proved me wrong. Now a member of Tapioca’s group, one of the loudest, most rambunctious groups, Moesha (along with her BFF Alari) is right in the thick of it, holding her own — even being the cause of trouble sometimes. She is sassy and confident. Physically, it’s like she is a different chimpanzee. She is very dark, with thick dark hair, and she’s a bit rotund, to tell the truth. The best news of all? She no longer needs any antidepressant medication.
The first day Moesha and her group were released onto their island home at Save the Chimps, a miracle happened. Many chimps born in research labs have never set foot on anything but concrete and steel. Grass is totally foreign to them, and a big open space without bars? Forget it. Their world has been a few square feet up until the moment the doors to the island are opened. So the first time they have a chance to go outside and onto the island, they are a little apprehensive. It may take them days, weeks or even years to finally take that first step. Moesha fit that type to a T. So imagine my surprise — and the tears in my eyes — when the first chimpanzee in her group to bravely walk all the way out onto the island and climb up high on a big wooden platform was none other than Moesha. She went out by herself, full of confidence, and pioneered the way for the other chimps in her family to follow her. It was amazing, and it remains one of my favorite moments.
Q. What surprises you the most about the chimpanzees you meet at the sanctuary?
A. I am always surprised by and impressed with their resiliency and their ability to forgive. If I had to endure even a little of what most of these chimps had to endure, I’d be in a psychiatric institution, and I certainly would have little love for the human race. But they have such big hearts — they are able to heal, and they are able to forgive. That’s not to say it’s OK to mistreat them because they can “take it” or because they can recover. But we can certainly learn a big lesson from them about forgiveness and not judging a whole group of people based on the negative actions of a select few.
Q. What do you hope readers will come away with after reading Opening Doors?
A. I hope that readers will gain not only an appreciation for the incredible work done by Dr. Carole Noon, but also a new awareness of the plight of captive chimpanzees. With an increasing number of chimps in need of sanctuary, we need the public’s help — your help — now more than ever. I hope Opening Doors will open your hearts to these wonderful chimpanzees who are counting on all of us to help them.