Article and photo by Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D.
In 1999, Marsha Larsen of Santa Fe spent her vacation observing the behavior of captive chimpanzees at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, WA. She came home a changed human. As a volunteer researcher, Marsha was part of a team seeking to determine how best to care for the highly intelligent apes in captivity. With over 2000 captive chimpanzees in the United States, the challenge to improve the social, physical and intellectual environment of the species who are the closest kin to humans is critically important.
Toward the end of the program, Marsha picked up a brochure about the Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care in Florida founded and directed by Dr. Carole Noon. Dr. Noon is one of the premier advocates for the rescue and care of all research chimpanzees. On the cover of the brochure was a photo of one of the former “astronaut chimps” used by the U.S. Air Force to test the safety of space travel prior to putting humans into space. Marsha read that many of the original space chimps were sold to the Coulston Foundation in Alamogordo, NM for biomedical research after the Air Force was finished with them. She was appalled by their stories - spending their lives in isolation cages and subjected to experimental procedures that were debilitating and painful. But it was the photo on the cover that most deeply affected her. “I looked into those eyes and knew I had to do something. I was embarrassed that this was going on in my state,” she said. When she returned to NM, Marsha called Dr. Noon and said, “How can I help?” Dr. Noon replied that she needed help with fund raising. Marsha began developing a donor network throughout the United States and England that ultimately raised a quarter of a million dollars and provided hundreds of hours worth of volunteer services.
Marsha also approached Animal Protection of New Mexico (APNM), the state’s preeminent animal advocacy organization, and volunteered to help work for the freedom of the chimpanzees at the Coulston lab in Alamogordo. “Marsha is a perfect example of compassion in action. She doesn’t stand around asking what someone else is going to do. She steps in and acts. She models the best in animal advocacy,” said Lisa Jennings, Executive Director of APNM. A dedicated alliance among several organizations and people eventually enabled the transfer of the chimpanzees and the entire Coulston facility to the auspices of Dr. Noon’s Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care in the fall of 2002.
Marsha is happy that the networking was successful. Almost everyone she approached agreed to help. Her most personally satisfying experience concerned Bobby, an extremely ill chimpanzee. He was vomiting and refusing food, and would soon die unless the cause of the illness could be found and treated. The veterinarian suspected an intestinal problem. An MRI was needed to determine if a blockage existed. Unfortunately Bobby could not be moved so a portable MRI unit would need to come to him in Alamogordo. Marsha got on the phone and started contacting her network. Through her veterinary contacts, she located a portable MRI. The next hurdle was to get the machine and the technicians to Alamogordo ASAP. Back to the phone, and in short order, Marsha had a private plane lined up to fly the MRI unit and two technicians to Bobby. Bobby’s problem was diagnosed and treated. Today Bobby is a healthy and cheerful fellow living under the care of Save The Chimps (changed from Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care in 2004) at the Alamogordo facility.
Marsha continues to help captive chimpanzees. Currently she is the APNM donations coordinator for enrichment items for the New Mexico chimpanzees. Marsha collects and transports donated toys and blankets to Alamogordo. During the decades that Coulston was a research facility, no enrichment activities were provided for the chimps. The toys and blankets they now receive make an enormous difference in their lives. The blankets are used to make sleeping nests at night. The toys provide stimulation for the chimpanzees’ active and intelligent minds. Marsha remembers when JB got his first blanket. “He was amazed that he had something of his very own. It allowed him to act on his instinct to nest. It enabled him to be a chimpanzee.” Henrietta’s story is even more poignant. For years, she was used as a breeder. Every one of her babies was removed and used for research. When Henrietta was given a chimpanzee doll, it literally became her baby. She cared for the doll with the same tenderness she would have shown her own babies had they not been taken from her.
You can help! Chimpanzees play hard, and new toys and blankets are always needed. You can donate blankets and toys, both new and clean used items in very good condition. Since blankets must be laundered every day, fleece and other blankets that wash and dry fast are needed. No comforters, quilts or knitted coverlets like afghans are acceptable as they are either easily destroyed or require too long to wash and dry. Sturdy and safe toys suitable for toddlers endure the chimpanzees’ rough play. The chimpanzees enjoy balls of basketball size or larger, plastic beach toys like pails and shovels, Kong dog toys, and soft-stuffed plush animals (no bean bag stuffing). To donate toys and blankets (in the Santa Fe area), contact Marsha at 505-466-2128 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To donate money to help build new chimpanzee habitats, visit www.savethechimps.org.
These days when Marsha sees the chimpanzees enjoying Kong toys filled with peanut butter or snuggling up at night with their very own blankets, she knows she made a difference. The phone calls and networking paid off. What has she learned from her work? “It never hurts to ask!”
Read more about the NM chimpanzees: http://www.petroglyphsnm.org/covers/cccc.html