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McKee and Save the Chimps celebrate milestones together

VERO BEACH — Guests mingled on a balmy Saturday evening for a Celebration of Sanctuary, applauding the ten year milestones of two remarkable organizations – McKee Botanical Garden and Save the Chimps, the largest chimp sanctuary in the world.  A Mercury Space Capsule replica caught everyone’s attention as they arrived to McKee, paying tribute to the contributions of space chimps, which were discarded as “surplus equipment” by the Air Force after serving their time in the space program.

McKee Botanical Garden has become such an integral part of Vero Beach, it’s hard to believe that it was almost bulldozed and paved over.  Fortunately, what was left of the former McKee Jungle Gardens was rescued from developers and restored, reopening in 2001.

Former NASA astronauts Bob Crippen and Al Worden were also on hand, lending their support to both organizations.

Al Worden, one of only 24 people to have flown to the moon, piloted the command module for the 1971 Apollo 15 moon mission.  He was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “most isolated human being” during his time in the orbiting Endeavour, being 2,235 miles away from any other human beings.

In 1981 Crippen piloted the Shuttle program’s first orbital test flight with John Young, commander.  He flew three more missions as commander, later serving as director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

“I’m very unhappy to put it mildly,” said Crippen of the space flight program’s cancellation.   “I believe we will have a program again.  I just don’t know when or how it will happen.  We’ll still be flying the space station until about 2020, but unfortunately we’ll have to rely on Russians to get us there.”

Crippen became involved with Save the Chimps soon after it was founded in 1997 by the late Dr. Carole Noon, and currently serves on its advisory council. The sanctuary received its first chimps in 2001.

“The chimps went through some pretty rough stuff,” said Crippen. “It seemed to me that it was right to give them a good retirement.”

When long-time Vero Beach resident Margie Konopaska read about the event, she offered the loan of her astonishing collection of NASA mission and astronaut patches.

“We moved to Vero in the fifties from the Kansas City area and became interested in the space program,” said Konopaska.  “We saw all the flights take off.”

After purchasing her first few patches at the Space Center’s gift shop, she eventually began receiving them by mail.

“I have every astronaut and every mission; these are the four patches for Bob Crippen and his four flights.”

Colorful works of art, painted by sanctuary chimps, lined both sides of the magnificent mahogany table in the Hall of Giants, enticing bidders for the silent auction.

“I’ve decided that each grandchild should get one of the paintings,” said Beth Smith.

“This fundraising event is unlike anything we’ve ever done in the past,” said Christine Hobart, McKee Executive Director, of the collaborative effort during a brief presentation.  “Today Save the Chimps and McKee are working together to honor the chimps and the beauty of nature.”

Save the Chimps Sanctuary Director Jen Fuerstein said that sanctuary is about safety, serenity, security and beauty.

“I’m amazed and wowed by all the beauty that surrounds us.  Like McKee, Save the Chimps is peaceful; it provides a wonderful place for chimps to live out their lives.”

“2011 is a big year for McKee and Save the Chimps.  It was 50 years ago that Ham was launched into space,” said Crippen of NASA’s first primate spaceflight.  “He cleared the way for humans.”

“As you can tell, I’m incognito,” joked Worden, sporting sunglasses following eye surgery. “The chimps were very important back then, and they’re important today.  God bless these people for giving them a place to live out their lives.”

There are still 56 chimps in the New Mexico facility, which should all be transferred to Florida by this summer.

“We’re getting down to the wire,” said Fuerstein.  “It’s really exciting.” {igallery 349}

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