Saving the Space Chimps

Space Science

This story was originally reported by George Knapp as part of an I-Team investigation with KLAS-TV in 1998 (the two stories above are from April and June 1998). Knapp has continued his investigation for at least four years.


MYSTERY WIRE — Even as Americans are once again focused on sending humans to space, there’s a forgotten chapter worth remembering. It was the saga to save the so-called space chimps.

Chimpanzees were often used during tests in the early space program. A few chimps were sent into space, many more were used for government research into what stresses the human body could handle.

Some of the surviving chimps in question were in the original program, others were descendants of the original space chimps.

The chimps were owned by the Air Force and cared for by private contractors after the space program ended.

For most of the chimps, there were many years ahead of medical and other experiments in the hands of the Coulston Foundation.


The three stories below aired in 1999.


There, many died after being dissected while still alive, injected with diseases, used for crash test dummies, sprayed or injected with insecticides, pesticides, carcinogens, poisons along with diseases such as TB and polio.

Over a number of years, the conditions of the chimp’s habitats were chronicled by several animal welfare groups. The plight of the space chimps was also championed by primate researcher Jane Goodall, former astronaut John Glenn, and former U.S. Senator Harry Reid.

The animal welfare groups argue the chimps are intelligent, capable of language, affection, and even sorrow. In the mid 1990’s, officially, the Air Force didn’t classify these animals as anything more important than surplus furniture. One Air Force spokesman said much like other military surplus, the chimps will be sold off to the winning bid or bidders.

The winning bidder for most of the chimps was Fred Coulston and his Coulston Foundation. Only a little over 30 of more than 100 chimps from the space program were handed over to animal sanctuaries to live out their lives.

Fred Coulston was known to many as the King Of The Apes. He advocated to gain ownership of all the chimps in an effort to breed them and have 5,000 primates on which to do research.

Fred Coulston was also a trained toxicologist. He started experimenting on chimps when he could no longer use human prisoners and said he would breed chimps to be a bank of body parts for use and transplants.

Coulston also received $8 million in federal AIDS research money at the same time as telling the Wall Street Journal AIDS was “a silly disease.”

He began the Coulston Foundation in New Mexico in 1993.


The two stories below aired on July 5, 2002


After the abuse of the chimps became a public and controversial story, the Pentagon tried to turn over all of the chimps to the Colston Foundation. Animal groups were outraged, especially in light of Colston ‘s record on animal welfare. “As an example, three (chimps) were cooked to death.” Former Senator Harry Reid said. “They were in a little room. Temperatures got to 140 and 150 degrees, they were actually cooked to death. Alive.”

By 1996, the Colston Foundation faced at least three major investigations by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for mistreating its primates, several of which died under gruesome circumstances.

This triggered members of Congress to call for hearings into the Air Force decision to award the space chimps to Colston and then a lawsuit filed in Washington D.C. federal court asking the Air Force’s decision to be overturned.

The suit alleged the Air Force violated its own regulations which require adequate treatment of the chimps. It also alleged the Air Force violated federal laws concerning the divestiture of public property. 

It took years of legal wrangling and official investigations, but eventually the space chimps were freed from experimentation and lives of misery.

The USDA investigation found several violations of federal law resulting in the deaths of more chimps and issued an unprecedented government order. It stated that Coulston must stop all of his chimp breeding programs.

Animal welfare groups celebrated the action, as did Senator Reid, who said it is a second chance to do the right thing for the Air Force chimps adding they should be permanently retired from any further medical research.

In September 2002, with the help of a $3.7 million grant, the Save the Chimps organization purchased the Coulston facility and transformed it into the world’s largest sanctuary for chimpanzees.

It would serve as temporary housing for the chimps until the organization could create a more permanent outdoor sanctuary in Fort Pierce, Florida.

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