A Letter from Phyllis

My mother’s name was Anna. She was born in Africa. When she was just a baby she was kidnapped by the United States Air Force and used in the early days of NASA’s space travel research.

My name is Phyllis and I was born in a cage at a research laboratory in the New Mexico desert. After just 10 minutes with my mother I was taken to the nursery to be raised by humans with other baby chimpanzees. I don’t know what happened to my mother. When I was a year old I was anesthetized for the first time to have the number 630 tattooed on my chest. Over the next 32 years I lived almost entirely alone in small, dungeon-like cages and I was anesthetized for biopsies, blood samples and ultrasounds at least 234 times.

A few months after turning two I entered my first research study. I was chosen for “chair” and “couch” training. The chair was a massive restraint device. My head and feet were held in place by metal bars that left only my hands free. The couch was a horizontal version of the chair. I was fitted with a special suit that covered my torso, which then laced to the container so I was unable to escape. I learned to push certain levers in response to flashing lights. If the light was red I pulled the left lever and if green I pulled the right lever. If I pulled the correct lever I would get a banana pellet or a sip of water as a reward. If I pulled the wrong lever I would receive an electric shock. To “motivate” me, I wasn’t given any food or water for 24 hours before each training session.

On my third birthday I spent 16 hours strapped to the couch. This was very uncomfortable and I developed lesions on my thighs from struggling to get free. Next, I was used for a year in hepatitis research, which required I submit to dozens of liver biopsies. The following year I was used in a gonorrhea study.

In 1976, at the age of nine, I entered the National Chimpanzee Breeding Plan. My sole job now was to produce more research subjects for the lab. I was paired with a male for a few weeks and if I didn’t become pregnant I was paired with another male until I did. Once I became pregnant I would live completely alone until the baby was born. I got pregnant ten times and almost every other time the baby did not survive, which is why I had so many ultrasounds. The babies that did live were taken from me within days to be raised by humans. My medical record says I was a good mother and appeared depressed after my babies were removed from my care. Sometimes after giving birth, I was briefly caged with another female chimp in an effort to cheer me up I guess.

When I was 33 years old I was anesthetized in the lab for the last time, although I didn’t know it at the time. I woke up in a long truck with some other chimpanzees and humans. After several days of traveling the truck stopped, the doors opened and the humans started saying, “Welcome to your home in Florida!” A dog named Ester, who I later learned to ruthlessly tease, barked at us. I was moved into a building with other chimps. I recognized some of them: Marty, Emory, Gromek and Wes, all of whom I knew from the breeding program. I also recognized Emily and Jennifer, who had tried to cheer me up after my babies had been taken away!

Pretty soon all of us chimps were living together as a big family. I was no longer alone. We watched as wooden platforms were built and ropes were hung on a big island. One day the doors that led to the island were opened. Lil’ Mini, who loves trouble, said it was our chance to escape. Gromek, however, said the island was meant for us. Either way, it was Debbie who, without hesitation, went outside first and one by one we all followed her through the open doors.

A few years ago I began to feel tired all the time. My feet were swollen a lot and sometimes I had trouble catching my breath. I guess the humans noticed something wrong too because they started giving me special medicine for my heart. I feel much better now but am no longer fast enough to catch Lil’ Mini when she misbehaves.

I rarely think about the dark and lonely place I lived most of my life. I have spent the last seven years in the sun with my family. Every day, while we eat our meals inside, the humans go onto the island and scatter peanuts, sunflower seeds, banana leaves and other treats for us to find later. We even have parties; really we do, with themes, decorations and gifts. Our last party was the Fourth of July, Independence Day, which of course is everyone’s favorite! There were red, white and blue streamers, bags full of goodies and veggie sandwiches for dinner.

Much to Lil’ Mini’s delight I am not as fast as I used to be, but I am happier now then I have ever been.


Phyllis and twenty other chimps were rescued in 2001 as a result of a lawsuit filed by Save the Chimps, Inc. against the United States Air Force. The following year, Save the Chimps rescued the rest of the 266 chimps being held captive at the lab in the New Mexico desert where Phyllis was born. Among those rescued was one of Phyllis’ children. Her name is Jersey and she is now 12 years old. On July 31, 2008, Phyllis died in her sleep.

The Arcus Foundation will match all donations to Save the Chimps in Phyllis’ name.

Save the Chimps, Inc. is a 501 (c)(3) charitable organization and all contributions are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law.