It's not Florida, but ...

October 19, 2002

IRVING SERVED the country well.

His was an assignment with few volunteers -- combating a deadly virus that has claimed the lives of millions here and abroad. In the 1980s, American researchers were engaged in a race to develop a vaccine for AIDS. Irving, along with others, joined the federally funded studies in which participants were injected with HIV.

But scientists soon learned that Irving and the other chimpanzees were not the ideal subjects for this research -- they rarely ever contracted the disease, despite their similarity to humans.

Retired from federally funded studies a few years ago, Irving faced few options -- until now. Uncle Sam, Irving's longtime employer, has decided that about 1,300 surplus research chimps deserve a place to call home. Last month, an arm of the National Institutes for Health awarded a $19 million, 10-year contract to a nonprofit group, Chimp Haven, to build and operate a sanctuary. Think of it as a retirement center for Pan troglodytes, and a nice one at that -- especially if you've been cooped up in a research facility with little time or occasion to socialize.

Ham, America's first chimp in space, never had it so good. After his years with NASA, Ham wound up at the National Zoo, alone and a curiosity. He ended his days with a few other primates at a North Carolina zoo.

Here's what awaits Irving and other retirees when the new facility opens in 2004 on 200 acres in the wilds of northwest Louisiana: Rolling hills to roam, pines and oaks to climb, anthills to devour -- and girls! (Chimps in a federal breeding program also will be eligible for the program. After all, chimps are very social animals.)

Is this a great country or what?

Now don't go thinking this is a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars. Officials say the sanctuary will in fact save the government money -- about half of the $20 to $35 daily cost of caring for a chimp in a lab. And their care can be expensive, since chimps can live 50 or 60 years.

Congress even passed a law in 2000 to ensure the health and well-being of retired research chimps.

For Irving, the sanctuary couldn't debut fast enough. After years of monotonous work, he and other eligible retirees will have opportunities to learn and explore and experience the wild, says Chimp Haven president Linda Brent.

But will there be bingo?

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