Opening Doors: Carole Noon and Her Dream to Save the Chimps

Gary Ferguson / Save the Chimps / 176 pages

Opening Doors: Carole Noon and Her Dream to Save the Chimps begins with a journey. In 2001, 10 chimpanzees are being cajoled into traveling cages within a trailer truck, bound for a new and decidedly unknown world. Though the road is long—Arizona to Florida—the chimps don’t seem to mind. They stare out the trailer windows in unwavering wonder as the scenery rolls by, mile after mile after mile. They are not used to such visual stimulation. They are, says the book, “refugees from what has been, for some, a thirty-, even forty-year sentence of fear and loneliness and despair”—imprisoned in claustrophobic cages. Some are survivors and descendants of the baby chimps captured in Africa in the 1950s and used in the original NASA space research program. These 10, and the many more to follow over the next few years, are on their way to a far better existence, thanks to the efforts of one very determined woman.

Part biography, part history, and part coffee table book filled with arresting chimp portraits, Opening Doors chronicles the founding in 1997 by Dr. Carole Noon of Save the Chimps, an organization that today runs the world’s largest sanctuary for captive chimps. The organization was catalyzed by an announcement from the US Air Force that it was ending its chimpanzee research program, and was looking for a good place to unload its “surplus equipment”—as the 141 chimps were classified. Carole’s nascent (and as yet, landless) organization put in a bid for the animals—and lost. The majority of the animals went, instead, to the Coulston Foundation in Alamogordo, New Mexico, a biomedical laboratory that had, according to Save the Chimps, “the worst record of any lab in the history of the Animal Welfare Act.”

But Carole refused to throw in the towel. She sued the Air Force and gained custody of 21 of the chimps. Then, dramatically, the Coulston Foundation—facing imminent bankruptcy and a loss of faith and funds from the National Institutes of Health—agreed in 2002 to sell its Alamogordo property to Save the Chimps. Moreover, it would “donate” to the organization its 266 chimps. With help from a special grant from the Arcus Foundation, Save the Chimps kicked into high gear, transforming 150 acres of abandoned Fort Pierce, Florida, orange groves into a refuge for these and other chimps rescued from laboratories, the entertainment industry, and the pet trade.

Though Carole is the primary subject of Opening Doors, readers may find the greatest interest in passages where the biographical spotlight turns away from her life and the logistics of creating the sanctuary, and shines instead on individual chimps. Half a dozen are profiled, and their stories are both heartbreaking in the revelation of what they endured and heartwarming in the accounts of their acquisition of happier—albeit for some, brief—endings. In 2009, Carole herself died at the age of 59, of pancreatic cancer. Her legacy, however, endures, as evidenced by the many soulful simian eyes that stare back at you in peace from the pages of Opening Doors.