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Remembering Ham, the Astrochimp

On January 31, 1961, Ham became the first chimpanzee in space as part of the United States’ space program. Ham didn’t volunteer for the “honor”, nor do I believe did he feel any pride in his accomplishment.

Ham was kidnapped from Cameroon in 1957 and was held captive on a farm in Miami until the Air Force later purchased him. He was sent to Holloman Air Force Base where he and 40 other chimpanzees were forced to participate in grueling tests to determine which chimpanzee was best-suited for being launched into space. Ham became one of six chimpanzees to be considered for the launch. He scored well on his tests and his reaction times were faster than the other chimpanzees. Ham was a quick learner who knew that succeeding at a task would earn him a banana treat. The tests consisted of measuring the chimpanzees’ endurance to being confined for long periods in a chair and trained to operate levers in response to light cues.

Ham, though still only known as No. 65, was launched into sub-orbital space on this day in 1961. The flight experienced some issues, such as loss of pressure and a very rough splash-down. The capsule landed 130 miles from the target and began taking on water. It took the recovery ship several hours to reach No. 65. Amazingly, Ham survived with only a bruised nose. Photos of the recovery how No. 65 with an enormous grin which was interpreted as happiness. Chimps, however, only bare their teeth due to extreme fear and anxiety. When back on land, photographers asked for another photo of No. 65 in his “couch” – the seat he was strapped into in flight. Ham refused to sit in the couch, even when several men tried to force him.

Now that No. 65 had successfully completed the flight, NASA decided they that No. 65 could have a name. In an unsurprising lack of creativity, they named him an acronym for where he was imprisoned – Holloman Aerospace Medical Center.

He was then sent to be exploited at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. for 17 years where he lived alone before being transferred to the North Carolina Zoo. At least he was able to live with other chimpanzees at the North Carolina Zoo. Ham died on January 18, 1983, at the age of 26. Space programs had been sending animals into space throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Beginning in 1948, the U.S. military launched V-2 rockets with rhesus monkeys as test subjects. Over three test flights, all three monkeys died. The first monkey suffocated in space and two subsequent monkeys died on impact. For the next 40 years, the Air Force chimpanzees and their descendants were used as biomedical research test subjects, space-related experimentation, disease research, toxicology experiments, experimental surgeries, and breeding.

When the Air Force was done experimenting with chimpanzees, they planned to euthanize their test subjects. Dr. Carole Noon had a vision of creating a sanctuary for the chimps that had been subjugated by the Air Force. Initially, the Air Force refused Dr. Noon’s offer to provide a home for the Air Force chimps until a lawsuit awarded custody of the chimps to her. Jon Stryker of the Arcus Foundation shared Dr. Noon’s vision and purchased 150 acres in Florida for a chimpanzee sanctuary. The Air Force chimps arrived in 2001 and were able to live out the rest of their lives in peace and tranquility, without fear of being exploited or used as test subjects.

Save the Chimps was founded for the Air Force chimps, though quickly grew when, in 2002, Dr. Noon rescued 266 chimpanzees from the Coulston Foundation in Alamogordo, NM. The chimps had been used as biomedical research test subjects and most lived alone in concrete cells. The Coulston Foundation had the worst record of any lab in history since the inception of the Animal Welfare Act.

Save the Chimps has rescued chimpanzees from many dire circumstances. Their residents include chimpanzees rescued from research labs, the entertainment industry, zoos, and former pets. Today, over 250 chimpanzees live on 12 man-made islands in chimpanzee family groups. They receive three meals a day, enrichment, medical care, and celebrate every holiday with parties on their islands. The chimpanzees also enjoy the love and affection of a dedicated staff of caregivers and volunteers.

Save the Chimps is one of my favorite animal sanctuaries. I volunteer at the sanctuary when I am able to travel to Florida and represent them at animal-related events around New England. It continuously confounds me that anyone could look into the eyes of a chimpanzee and still view them as a subject for any type of testing or experimentation. It is inhumane and beyond cruel.

“They have bravely served their country. They are heroes and veterans.” – Dr. Carol Noon

There are many ways you can support Save the Chimps:

  • Donate
  • Volunteer
  • Sponsor a chimpanzee party
  • Register on Amazon Smile
  • Like and Follow on Facebook

Educate yourself and others about why you should never even consider a chimpanzee – or any wild animal – as a pet. It is our moral obligation to peak for those who have no voice.


A Visit to Il Rifugio degli Asinelli in Italy

A couple of years ago, a friend and I took a 10-day trip to Italy and Switzerland. When planning the trip and what we would see and experience in the Piedmont region of Italy, I began searching for an animal sanctuary to visit. The miracles of Google led me to Il Rifugio Degli Asinelli – The Donkey Refuge.

To say that The Donkey Refuge is in the middle of nowhere would be an understatement. We rented a car one morning in Stresa on Lake Maggiore and Google Maps informed us that the trip would take approximately 1.5 hours. We climbed out of Stresa on a winding, switchback-filled road that began to make me rethink the drive. We finally made it to the autostrade after a harrowing 20 minutes, and I relaxed into the drive. The car was a Fiat Panda, barely large enough to hold our two suitcases. It was also a manual transmission, and it had been awhile since I last drove a stick. I managed to do well, only stalling once in two days, so I felt successful.

We exited the autostrade after about 40 minutes and continued our journey on country roads through the Piedmont. As we turned onto one such road, with no town in sight, we noticed a strange occurrence. There were single women stationed along the road, spaced intermittently about every 100 feet. At first we pondered whether they could be waiting for a bus, but that didn’t seem likely as they were on opposing sides of the road. It finally occurred to us that the women were prostitutes, though we couldn’t imagine where they would actually ply their trade. They were literally surrounded by farmland. Stunned, we continued on, driving through picturesque towns with roads barely wide enough for one car, no less two. I became adept at pulling to the side for oncoming “traffic” and really began to enjoy the trip.

Finally, we pulled into The Donkey Refuge. It is located at Via per Zubiena 62, Sala Biellese, in the shadows of the Pre-Alps. I went into the gift shop and spoke with Hillaria (forgive me if it is misspelled). She was friendly and informative and I learned about the refuge and the donkeys. They do allow you to visit the donkeys, but you have to stay on your side of the fence!

Il Rifugio Degli Asinelli was founded in 2006 and is an offshoot of a U.K.-based charity that has been working on donkey welfare since 1969. The mission of the refuge is to provide care, protection, and permanent security for donkeys and mules which are in need of attention due to sickness, mistreatment, poor circumstances. They also strive to prevent cruelty and suffering among donkeys and mules in Italy.

The Donkey Refuge has five main activities to help them accomplish their mission:
• Provide care for donkeys and mules who are in need;
• A network of Welfare Officers who investigate public complaints of mistreatment or abuse;
• Education to promote donkey welfare practices;
• Donkey-assisted riding therapy program for children with special needs; and
• Fundraising to pay for the above.

Our self-guided tour of the refuge was wonderful. There are paths that lead up a hill toward the older donkeys and those with respiratory illnesses. There are also informational sheets near the donkeys’ paddocks, telling you a little about each donkey. The Donkey Refuge also houses mules, hinnies, ponies, and one horse, but they live together in harmony. I really liked that each animal had a loose collar with their name engraved, so you knew which donkey you were petting. The collars were color-coded so you would know which one were available for adoption or fostering. We concluded our tour with the younger donkeys who were free-ranging near the parking lot. All the donkeys we encountered appeared in good spirits and looked well-fed. Veterinarians were on hand, if necessary, and Il Rifugio Degli Asinelli would be a wonderful place at which any donkey would be happy to retire. I am grateful that sanctuaries and refuges exist to help care for the animals who suffer unnecessarily due to man’s inhumanity and cruelty.

How can you help Il Rifugio Degli Asinelli? Click on their name throughout this post. From their webpage, you can donate, adopt, sponsor, or foster one of the refuge’s residents. If you live locally, you might also want to consider volunteering. If you live anywhere in Italy and witness cruelty to donkeys or mules, you can report it on the site also and they will make sure the complaint gets investigated. There are a number of other actions with which you can get involved right from their home page.

My only complaint about The Donkey Refuge is that the gift shop did not accept credit cards. We were limited with our Euros, so only purchased a few small items. I will definitely add Il Rifugio Degli Asinelli to my end of year donation list though and hope you will, too!

Always remember, to use your voice to ensure that all animals are being treated humanely and without cruelty. Use your voice to speak for those who have none. I have a voice and I Speak for Paws (and feet and hooves and fins and…).


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