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Remembering 'ham' the chimpanzee

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

Ham was born in the forests of Central Africa in 1957, and for the first two years of his life was cared for by his mother and his extended family in the wild. But one fatal day in 1959, he was brutally taken from his wild home and family and shipped to a medical facility in Florida, USA 


Ham is named after the laboratory (the Holloman Aerospace Medical Centre) that subsequently prepared him for an event that no animal should ever be forced to undertake, ham was prepared for spaceflight. 


At the laboratory alongside chimpanzees ‘Minnie’ and Enos’, Ham was trained to sit for long periods of time confined to chairs and to operate levers in response to light cues. On January 31, 1961 Ham was propelled into space at just over 3 years of age, traveling at speeds of 5800 mph, he spent over 16 minutes in flight and survived his return to earth despite the capsule filling with water as it landed in the sea.


The stress and anxiety the training and this event must have presented to Ham are unimaginable and this after being removed from his mother, family and natural home. At 3 years old Ham was plunged into a world which would have filled him with fear at the hands of his human captives. Despite this, Ham as an infant that should have still been dependent on his mum for survival, had managed to successfully negotiate the fear and anxiety enough to perform the tasks required which would ultimately save his life.


Yet despite this extraordinary feat of adaptability and survival and despite being hailed as a ‘national hero’ Ham was later transferred to The National Zoo where he was to spend the next 17 years in social isolation before being transferred to North Carolina Zoo and integrated with other chimps. Sadly he died at the young age of just 26 years old on January 19th 1983. This was a fate not fitting of any animal but the fate of other ‘space chimps’ was arguably worse as they were transferred to biomedical research facilities to be used in experimentation.


On this day we honor Ham and all of the other poor souls that have been subjected to similar treatment in our quest to explore realms beyond our borders. Both prior to 1961 and after Ham’s spaceflight numerous other animals including macaques, squirrel monkeys, cats, dogs, mice, rabbits and many invertebrate species have all been blasted into space with many dying in the process.


And we must use Ham’s story to remember all of the other chimpanzee babies that have been stolen from their natural families and homes since 1959 to be used and abused for our benefit. Whilst Ham’s wild capture took place over 40 years ago, to this day infant chimps are still being ripped from their wild families to supply the illegal pet trade and sold to zoos around the world. 


And we must support those that are working tirelessly to ensure that Ham’s descendants remain in the wild and provide a home for those that can no longer be returned to their natural environment.


Photo copyright Martin Mecnarowski https://www.shutterstock.com/g/martin%20mecnarowski




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