ALAMOGORDO, N.M. - The long, dark and aging buildings are lined with small steel cages that look rather like dog kennels.
But the animals who lived in them were large chimpanzees, higher primates that are the closest relative to the human race.
For almost a decade, the massive biomedical research lab here was a chain link and concrete home for hundreds of chimpanzees used in medical research, the descendants of NASA's "astrochimps" that paved the way for the space flights of John Glenn and Alan Shepard.
No chimps were experimented on at the Alamogordo facility, but federal officials would come to discover that the chimps had been horribly abused and mistreated. They were isolated from one another, housed in dangerously hot or cold buildings, and worse.
They were sent around the country to other labs where they were reportedly used in H.I.V. testing and in the development of the still elusive hepatitis C vaccine - a disease that is responsible for more deaths than H.I.V.
Now the facility is closed, and last Monday, a non-profit called Save the Chimps took the last 10 apes to Florida to retire.
Save the Chimps purchased the facility from the infamous Coulston Foundation in 2002 for $3.4 million. Now it wants to sell the 47-acre property for $500,000, according to Save the Chimps executive director Philip Flynn.
"We're about chimpanzees. We would love to sell the property and recoup whatever we can and reinvest it for them," Flynn says.
Wayne Windle, a commercial real estate agent in El Paso, put the property on the market last month. He says he's handled his share of unusual properties since becoming a broker in 1984, but nothing as strange or with as haunting a history as the now-vacant chimp lab.
Even with the list price nearly a seventh of what Save the Chimps paid for the property, it's going to be a hard sell, says Windle, president of Wayne Windle Enterprises in El Paso.
He's had very few inquiries. So far, he's shown the property to two people.
In a weak economy that's made it difficult to sell properties that can generate income immediately - which the chimp facility won't - there is also the stigma attached to its history.
Toxicologist Fred Coulston established the Coulston Foundation research facility in Alamogordo in 1993. At its peak, the foundation controlled as many as 650 chimpanzees - half of the U.S. research population, Flynn says.
But the foundation lost its government contracts after federal officials found it had abused and neglected animals.
Animals like Bobby the chimp. Bobby was born at the research facility in 1983 and began his life as a biomedical research subject when he was a year old.
He lived in Building 300, called the dungeon, until he was 18 and was involved in nine research studies.
During that time, he was anesthetized more than 250 times. Sometimes he had needles inserted into his abdomen to take samples of his liver. He also had numerous muscle biopsies.
At some point he started self-mutilating, a behavior that's sometimes observed in those who are deeply depressed or who have been abused. He compulsively bit his left arm, releasing endorphins in his brain that eased the pain, says Jen Feuerstein, Save the Chimps sanctuary director. She moved into a converted office trailer on the property in 2002 to care for the chimps.
Bobby slept in a corner of his cage, sitting up, with his nose against the wall, emaciated and sick.
Each chimp that was born at the facility has its own story, and while Bobby's story is worse than some, it is also representative of many others.
It is unclear what research the Alamogordo chimps were involved in, or if any of the research led to important medical breakthroughs, since much of that history has been redacted.
By 2001, the Coulston Foundation was headed for bankruptcy, and in September 2002 Save the Chimps purchased the property.
The non-profit immediately retired the chimps and cared for them at the facility while building a massive sanctuary in Florida. At 150 acres, and with the capacity for 300 chimpanzees, Save the Chimps has dubbed it the largest in the world.
"What we have been doing over the last nine years is taking the chimps, a lot of them were living alone and some in small groups, and socializing them into large family groups, and that takes a long time. It takes about a year to form a social group, and we had to do that for about 12," Feuerstein says.
Today, Bobby the chimp is retired in Florida, the facility in Alamogordo is empty, and Windle is searching for a buyer.
"There's no one in the world that needs chimp kennels like this," says Windle.
Any buyer is probably going to have to demolish most of the 11 buildings and redevelop the property, a tough sell given the shaky economy.
"It was obviously built for a very specific purpose, which is to house chimpanzees, and we don't want it to be used for a biomedical research lab again," Feuerstein says, "We are hoping that somebody is going to have a creative idea for what they can do with this property."
The property does have some things going for it, though, including its location. The facility is just outside the city of Alamogordo and located at the intersection of two major arterials - U.S. Hwy. 54 and Interstate 70.
"The price is right," Windle says, "It is just a matter of getting people to realize there are some upsides in Alamogordo, if you have the money to buy it."
As for Save the Chimps, now that the "Great Chimp Migration" is coming to an end, Flynn says they are focused on pending Congressional legislation known as the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act.
It would retire federally owned chimpanzees, including 185 chimpanzees that still live in the region, at Holloman Air Force Base.
Those chimps were also controlled by the Coulston Foundation before it shut its doors.
But, Flynn says, the biggest issue now is caring for the chimps at the sanctuary, something the non-profit will be doing for decades.
"They are like 3-year-olds in Arnold Schwarzenegger bodies," he says.
For Windle, the biggest issue now is finding an investor who will usher in a new, more productive future for a property stained by its history.
E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.
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