This story was originally posted on August 6, 1995. The text below is unchanged from the original.
Nobody in his right mind would want to be responsible for a colony of research chimpanzees. For one thing, a full-grown chimp is stronger than the average man and in some ways about as smart as the average 3-year-old. For another, chimps are staggeringly expensive to breed and keep: $10,000 a year over a chimp's 60-to-70-year life span. And now, federal funds for biomedical research on chimps are getting tight.
None of this seems to faze Frederick Coulston. As chairman of the Coulston Foundation, he already oversees the largest colony of research chimps in the world. Now, he is on the brink of taking over yet another primate laboratory, a prestigious facility run by New York University Medical Center. If the deal goes through, Coulston would control nearly 750 chimpanzees, more than half the chimps available for biomedical research in the entire country.
That prospect worries a lot of people. According to critics--and Coulston has many among biomedical researchers and animal welfare activists--he has been irresponsible in his treatment of his animals. Prodded in part by the activist group In Defense of Animals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited Coulston last month for violations of the Animal Welfare Act that could carry fines of at least $7,500 per day. The charges include substandard housing--the USDA says at least 27 chimps were being kept in cages not much bigger than a bathroom stall--and lapses in care that led to the deaths of several animals.
But biomedical researchers are also concerned about the concentration of such a large fraction of the 1,200 research chimps in the United States in the hands of a single person. As federal requirements governing the care of chimps have tightened, virtually all research involving them now takes place at only a handful of labs with the required specialized facilities and experience. Federal programs focusing on diseases such as AIDS and hepatitis, as well as pharmaceutical companies testing new drugs or vaccines, depend upon these labs--and often the labs' own in-house scientists--to do the work for them. Researchers worry that a near monopoly could drive up the cost of primate research, even though the demand for chimps is declining. Preston Marx, a vaccine researcher with the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York, says, "The idea is, take over all the chimps in the world. It is like a bad Batman plot."
Coulston, now 81, has a long history in the primate business. The cigar-chomping native New Yorker was among the first scientists in the 1940s to use primates as models for human physiology. He is widely recognized in the field of toxicology, and he has tested the effects of drugs, food additives, industrial solvents and pesticides on chimps and monkeys. In the '80s he founded a small primate colony--White Sands Research Center, in Alamogordo, N.M., a mom and pop business that subsisted almost entirely on contract work, testing drugs and chemicals on primates for manufacturers.
Coulston instantly became the director of the largest colony of chimps in the world in 1993, when he took over a primate laboratory run by New Mexico State University. NMSU's lab was one of only six facilities in the country, along with White Sands, that housed chimpanzees used in biomedical research. When the two labs were rolled together into a new entity, called the Coulston Foundation, the number of animals in Coulston's control tripled to a total of 500 chimps and over 1,000 monkeys. In addition to the animals, NMSU agreed to give him $400,000, as well as several animal facilities, the lease on a brand-new, $10 million federally funded building for housing chimpanzees and approximately $4 million in federal research contracts.
Violations. Coulston's proposed takeover of the prestigious NYU law would be a major addition to this already vast empire. Coulston claims that he only has the interests of the animals at heart. But critics say he has already taken on more than he can handle. Earlier this year a congressional plan to give him the $10 million federally funded chimp-housing facility, along with 150 chimps that now belong to the Air Force, was scuttled after famous chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall raised questions about "irregularities and violations" of animal-care regulations at the Coulston Foundation.