More than 40 years ago, America was celebrating its seven Mercury Astronauts who were chosen to ride the first of the country's rockets high above the atmosphere, but the real pioneers of the space program were not men but chimpanzees.
In January 1961, four months before Alan Shepard took his brief but historic ride aboard a Redstone rocket, a 3-year-old chimpanzee named Ham rode a rocket into space and, according to NASA, "Despite a host of harrowing mischances, he raised the confidence of the astronauts and the capsule engineers alike."
Nine months later, a 5-year-old chimp named Enos rode an Atlas rocket into orbit, presaging John Glenn's first orbital flight in February 1962. Due to a malfunction inside the capsule, Enos suffered an electric shock after every correct maneuver he made, contradicting his training. Yet Enos ignored the shocks and performed the flight tasks he knew were right. The chimpanzee orbited Earth twice and landed alive, qualifying the space program for manned flight.
For several years before their unique missions, Ham and 64 other infant chimpanzees -- all captured in Africa and installed at Holloman Air Force base in New Mexico -- were put by the U.S. Air Force through a grueling regimen of tests. They were spun in giant centrifuges, tested for their reactions to G-forces and forced into unconsciousness in decompression chambers while technicians calculated their tolerances.
As the human space program got fully under way, the astronauts received heroes' welcomes, but the "chimponauts" and their non-flying fellow chimpanzees were assigned by the Air Force to "hazardous mission environments," including being the subjects of seat belt development.
Over time, the Air Force switched to crash dummies and stopped using the chimpanzees. In the 1970s, it released several for biomedical research purposes.
Meanwhile, The Coulston Foundation, a New Mexico research laboratory, collected the chimps for research in hepatitis and HIV. At one time, the foundation housed 600 chimpanzees, according to Andrew Rowan of the Humane Society of the United States, in Washington.
"Coulston seemed to want to corner the market on chimpanzee research, but using chimpanzees in HIV did not turn out as hoped and the chimpanzee was used less and less in research," Rowan told United Press International. "Coulston's funding was cut and he was subject to several U.S. Department of Agriculture violations of the Animal Welfare Act," he said.
The Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care, of Fort Pierce, Fla., sued the Air Force for violating its own chimpanzee divestment criteria. After a legal battle, the CCCC and Coulston Foundation reached an agreement in 1999 and the CCCC took custody of the remaining 21 Air Force chimpanzees and they finally retired at the CCCC's South Florida Sanctuary.
"Chimp Haven is a start, but here are about 1,700 chimpanzees in research laboratories nationwide and most will have to be taken care of," Rowan said. "While animals in other lab experiments may be euthanized after the research is over, the National Institutes of Health has determined that because chimpanzees as so close to humans 'euthanasia is not a management option.'"
Many chimpanzees remain confined in laboratory facilities -- mostly in 5-foot by 7-foot cages -- because there are no other places for them.
According to Rowan, no one knows how many chimpanzees are being held in privately but he estimates there could be as many as 2,000, while according to other estimates about 200 might be employed in entertainment.
This week, the U.S. government selected Chimp Haven Inc., an independent non-profit organization in Caddo Parish, La., to build and operate a sanctuary for chimpanzees retired from federal biomedical facilities.
"This was more than 20 years in the making," Linda Koebner, executive director of Chimp Haven, told UPI. "Although chimpanzees are almost extinct in the wild we will have to vasectomy the males so that no more breeding occurs."
Fifty years ago, there probably were a million living chimpanzees in Africa. Now there might be only 150,000 left in the wild.
Congress passed the Chimp Act that allocated $14 million for a facility for the aging chimps. As part of the private/public partnership, Chimp Haven must raise $6 million to meet the government's matching funds requirement plus 10 percent of construction cost and 25 percent of chimpanzee care.
Chimpanzees are expensive to care for. In laboratories they cost $35 a day each because of the high staff-to-animal ratio, but in a sanctuary they cost about $11 per day, according to Roebner.
"Chimp Haven, which will eventually house 300 chimpanzees, will provide humane treatment at a cost less than the current practice of continuing to house the chimps on site at research facilities," said Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La.
The 200 acres near Shreveport will afford the chimpanzees to live in social groups and in an environment similar to their native African habitat. It will not be open to the public on a regular basis, but it will provide educational opportunities on chimpanzee behavior.
"We expect some of the chimps coming to Chimp Haven will have psychological problems because some have never been outside their cages, been outdoors, felt grass or lived in a group," said Koebner.
Chimpanzees normally live to about age 50, although some live to 65. Genetically they are the closest relation to humans among animals and studies have found they share 98.5 percent of human genetic code -- though more recent research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggested humans might share only 95 percent of their DNA with the primate.
Chimpanzees act similar to humans because they have the same emotions of joy, anger, grief, sorrow, pleasure, boredom, and depression as well as the ability to comfort and reassure one another by kissing and embracing.
According to the CCCC, between 15 and 120 chimpanzees of both sexes and all ages live in a group called a community. The nomadic animals know each other but chimps feed, travel, and sleep in much smaller groups called parties of six or less.
Large groups in which at least half the community is present are called gatherings. Highly social affairs, the gatherings may last a week or more and, like parties, are flexible with individuals arriving and leaving.
A chimpanzee eats almost 200 different plant species and more than 20 types of insects, but they do not wander around hoping to see food. According to the CCCC, chimpanzees know where they are going and have to remember from year to year where food is located and when a particular fruit is ripe -- what scientists call "mental maps."
Also notable is the animal's use of tools, such as hammers to break the hard shells of nuts, poking at unfamiliar things with sticks and using leaves to scoop out water.
Chimpanzees mature as adults by about age 13 and sons stay with mothers for life, while daughters may move to another party.
The long maturing process is one of the reasons humans should not take on chimpanzees as pets, because the mother needs those years to teach the child.
"Most of the chimpanzees we see in movies and television are under five years old and while cute then, they grow up to 150 pounds and are as strong or stronger than humans," Rowan said. "Because of their strength they are forced into cages for the rest of their lives so we feel no one should own a chimpanzee as a pet," he said, adding, "Chimpanzees are not bigger monkeys, they're very intelligent, powerful and social animals that do not belong in a house."