April 17, 2006 12:00 PM

Blinking in the strong New Mexico sunshine, a caged chimpanzee named Pamela is wheeled out of the claustrophobic, prisonlike building she’s lived in her entire life. She’s followed by nine fellow inmates with names like Jeffrey, Ryan, Leah and Elway. After being secured in their own travel cages, all are gently moved onto a 38-ft.-long custom-built trailer, with windows, air conditioning and a caregiver on board. Their destination: one of 12 tranquil islands near Fort Pierce, Fla., that are part of the Save the Chimps Sanctuary. There they’ll join 54 other chimps, most of them rescued from drug-research labs. “We’ll see you guys in Florida,” STC’s founder, Carole Noon, calls out to the passengers as she pushes up the rear ramp of the trailer and padlocks it. “Say goodbye to this place.”

This place is a biomedical laboratory formerly run by the nonprofit Coulston Foundation in Alamogordo, N.Mex., that Noon and her 45-person staff there took over 3½ years ago. “Let’s hope,” she muses, watching the trailer embark on its 37-hour trek, “they can burn it out of their memories.”

It’s unlikely that Noon, 56, ever will. Since the ’60s the lab had bred generations of chimps to be subjects for numerous medical experiments. Its founder, Dr. Frederick Coulston, a noted infectious disease researcher who ran the facility until a year before his death in 2003 at 89, had come under fire after several chimps in his care died. USDA investigators then forced him to give up 300 of the animals. But it was the squalid conditions the remaining chimps were kept in that spurred Noon’s fight to better their lives.

“After I first walked in, my hair smelled, my car smelled,” Noon says of the permeating stench found in Building 300, which she nicknamed the Dungeon, one of a dozen or so previously unventilated habitats that once housed 600 chimps; 231 are still there today.

Though Noon has improved the compound over the past few years (adding skylights and expanding communal outdoor enclosures), the inmates still bear the scars of solitary confinement. Care providers must wear safety glasses to shield against spittle and feces hurled at them by the animals. “If you live alone in a cement box with no toys or blankets, what do you have control over? Your spit and your poop,” says Noon, explaining the chimps’ neurotic behavior. “That’s what breaks my heart, and that’s the Coulston legacy.”

Still, “what Carole has accomplished is phenomenal,” says Jane Goodall, the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees. Goodall was also an inspiration for Noon, a Portland, Ore., native, who heard Goodall give a lecture in 1984 when Noon was studying for her B.S. in biology at Florida Atlantic University. Goodall later invited Noon (by then a primatologist) to a Zambian wildlife orphanage to study a rescued chimp named Milla. Back in the States in 1997, Noon started her Florida sanctuary after acquiring 21 chimps previously owned by the U.S. Air Force. In 2002 Dr. Coulston donated his chimps to her. Since then, Noon has relocated only 37 of them, due to a shortage of trained caregivers in Fort Pierce. But she hopes to move the rest by next year and shut down the Coulston facility for good.

The chimps already living in Fort Pierce get TLC from a team of 22 staffers plus volunteers. Parties are held regularly, complete with candy apples, cupcakes and other treats. “When we open the door and let them at it, they’ll run out and hug each other,” says Noon. Otherwise, they spend their days cavorting on a playground and lumbering across a swaying land bridge. And at night? “If someone has a bad dream or steals someone else’s blanket, they wake each other up,” says Noon. But not her. “I sleep like a baby now,” she says, smiling.

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