Fred Astaire, a very dark colored uniquely handsome chimp in his late twenties, did not cope well in biomedical research. Years of research and being singly housed left him depressed and emotionally challenged to the point of exhibiting self-directed, destructive behaviors similar to those that can occur among institutionalized humans. On a regular basis, Fred would bite chunks out of his forearm. This caused him to need medication to reduce his anxiety. There were times when I would visit him that I couldn’t even coax him to come to the front of the cage for a hello and a rub. He would just lie in the back of his tiny cage and look at you, as if he had given up on life and humanity.
Towards the end of my time working with him, Fred was moved to a brighter unit and out of the thick subway-grating cage with limited visibility that he was regularly housed in. His new caretaker and I tried to provide more social and physical contact for him through our visits as did one of our volunteers since he was still caged alone. Though the volunteer was only there a few times a month, her visits with Fred would last nearly one half hour. He started to respond. It seemed as if he was harming himself less. He even played a bit during some visits and began to solicit attention more often. We were hopeful that his medication could be reduced at some point. He needed more than just a “drive by” visit, which is what caretakers are often limited to due to their workload. Though most of the chimps there were singly housed, Fred was particularly fragile.
I so wished that Fred Astaire would make it out to retirement somewhere. In a sanctuary, his problems could be worked with more intensely, progress could be made, and his preciousness could be appreciated. It’s usually impossible to completely undo such psychological damage but delicate animals like Fred need to be given that chance to heal. But Fred Astaire did not dance his way into retirement; he ended up in yet another research facility – the Coulston Foundation – where he died within two years.