Inside a Coulston building being cleaned by Save the Chimps staff
Photo: © NEAVS
To chimpanzees used in research, the Coulston Foundation was the worst luck of the draw. Despite continued egregious animal welfare violations, the Coulston facility received ongoing millions of dollars in government grants and grew to be the largest holding of chimpanzees for biomedical research in the world.
Photo: © NEAVS
Photo: © NEAVS
In the 1970s, the chimpanzee residents of Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, New Mexico were leased out by the U.S. government to Frederick Coulston, a toxicologist associated with Albany Medical College. Coulston aggressively promoted the chimpanzees in his care for use in cosmetics and insecticide testing.
In 1980, Coulston gave up the lease and opened his own private laboratory in Alamogordo called the White Sands Research Center, and the management of the Hollomon primate center went to New Mexico State University (NMSU).
Building a chimpanzee research empire
By the early 1990s, New Mexico State University (NMSU) was looking for a way out of the costly chimpanzee research business. NMSU turned to Coulston who subsequently acquired all 288 Holloman chimpanzees, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in endowment funds for their lifetime care. With these resources, Coulston turned his prior conglomerate of for-profit labs into a not-for-profit company, which he named the Coulston Foundation.
At Coulston the chimpanzees were used for toxicology and pre-clinical drug testing, as well as infectious disease research. In 1997, Coulston acquired 100 more chimpanzees when New York University closed its Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates. By the late 1990s, over 600 chimpanzees and hundreds of monkeys resided at Coulston.
An ongoing record of poor and negligent care
It wasn’t long before a shocking succession of chimpanzees and other primates began dying due to the poor conditions and substandard veterinary care at Coulston:
- In 1993, three chimpanzees—Robert, James, and Raymond—died when the temperature in their tiny shed-like enclosure rose to 150°.
- In 1994, four monkeys at the Holloman facility died of dehydration.
- In 1997, a healthy young chimpanzee named Jello died when food was not properly withheld prior to his anesthesia.
- Two months later, a baby named Echo died after an adult chimpanzee mauled her. The veterinarians who worked on her failed to treat her for shock before performing surgery on her arm.
- That summer, a dysentery outbreak took the lives of several more chimpanzees.
- In 1998, a chimpanzee named Holly died from the known side effect of an experimental drug. Later that year, Terrance and Muffin died from the same side effect of the same drug.
- In 1999, Eason, another chimpanzee, died while undergoing experimental spine surgery.
- In 2000, Leonard died during the same surgery.
- In 2001, Donna, a 36-year-old female chimpanzee, died. Veterinarians found the remains of a two-month-old dead fetus in her womb.
- Gina died in 2001 when she was locked in an outdoor enclosure, exposed to the desert heat.
Between 1993 and 2001, Coulston was responsible for the deaths of 13 monkeys and 35 chimpanzees—a total of 48 nonhuman individuals.
Violations across the board
In addition to the deaths, numerous agencies found Coulston to be in violation of multiple federal regulations. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Association for the Accreditation and Assessment of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC, an independent accrediting body) all independently determined that Coulston and its Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) were in violation of rules and regulations pertaining to animal welfare, housing conditions, and record-keeping practices.
USDA inspectors began documenting Animal Welfare Act (AWA) violations in 1995 and charged the lab that year with the deaths of Robert, James, and Raymond, as well as the monkeys. By 1997, Coulston lost its seventh veterinarian in four years; six more left in the following year.
At the end of 1998, the lab had only two and a half veterinarians to treat and care for nearly 1,000 chimpanzees and monkeys. The USDA cited Coulston two times that year for failing to provide adequate veterinary care, and stated that the lab needed to employ three to five additional veterinarians to meet its standards.
Again in 1998, the USDA charged Coulston with the negligent deaths of Jello and Echo. The charges were unprecedented in the history of the AWA. The following year, the USDA cited Coulston for violations of the AWA’s psychological well-being requirements. Immediately thereafter, Coulston was formally charged for a third time for the deaths of Terrance, Muffin, and Holly.
In 1999, Coulston violated a Consent Order in which the USDA required, among other provisions, that the lab discontinue its chimpanzee breeding program; Coulston was breeding babies again within four months. USDA never levied the $100,000 fine it had held in abeyance, pending compliance with the order.
The Air Force chimpanzees: awarded to Coulston despite conditions
In 1996, the US Air Force made the decision to divest itself of the Holloman chimpanzees. They offered the 141 chimpanzees to the highest bidders. In 1998, the Air Force awarded 111 of those individuals to Coulston, despite the lab’s mounting regulatory violations. The award was successfully challenged in court by Dr. Carole Noon of the Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care (now Save the Chimps—STC) who won permanent custody of 21 chimpanzees in 1999. By 2002, the chimpanzees had been relocated to the STC sanctuary in Florida.
NIH: looking the other way with American tax dollars
In 1998, AAALAC rejected Coulston’s bid for accreditation. NIH would continue for several more years to provide financial support to keep the controversial lab afloat. NIH was fully aware of the numerous regulatory violations and even conducted its own investigation in 1994, when it too, found Coulston’s veterinary program inadequate. Despite that, NIH officials failed to adequately address the extent of the lab’s problems, even while restricting Coulston’s Animal Welfare Assurance in 1999 (because the veterinary staffing problem was never corrected), thus theoretically prohibiting the lab from receiving federal funds.
Nevertheless, NIH did continue to fund the lab. A site visit by NIH officials in 1999 found the lab on the verge of bankruptcy. Despite the mounting and unprecedented number of federal charges, and NIH’s own findings that the lab was ineligible for federal monies, the NIH began propping up Coulston with “supplemental awards” to avoid the lab’s bankruptcy, all the while failing to adequately expose to Congress the dire conditions at this facility housing more than 1,000 nonhuman primates.
In May 2000, NIH took over “ownership” of 288 chimpanzees at Coulston. It contracted with Charles River Laboratories, a major animal dealer, breeder, and importer, to manage the facility. Coulston finally went bankrupt in 2002, and the facility was purchased by Save the Chimps with the help of the Arcus Foundation and other animal protection organizations, including NEAVS. Along with the property, Save the Chimps received 266 monkeys and chimpanzees. All the chimpanzees were given sanctuary at Save the Chimps and all of the monkeys were transferred from STC to Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation in Texas, a model primate sanctuary.
The 287 former “Coulston” chimpanzees that went to CRL continue to live their lives in yet another laboratory. In 2004, CRL was charged with state animal cruelty violations after the deaths of two chimpanzees, and the near-death of another. A judge dismissed the case on legal technicalities having nothing to do with the merits of the case, citing exemptions of veterinarians from cruelty charges and determining that CRL was there in a veterinary capacity.
For the former “Coulston” chimpanzees in New Mexico rescued by Save the Chimps, enormous improvements have been made to both their physical environment and quality of care. Their island hibitats and night buildings at the sanctuary’s Florida location have all been completed. As of April 2009, approximately half of the chimpanzees in New Mexico have already been brought to their new Florida, tropical home—a journey that must seem to them like going to heaven from hell.
Roller, Harriet. “Lethal Kinship: A report on the chimpanzees of The Coulston Foundation” Prepared for the Animal Protection Institute of New Mexico, web retrieved on 4/28/05.