Paul Fritz, a chimpanzee trainer at the Phoenix Zoo, and his assistant (and later wife) Jo Chambers founded the Primate Foundation of Arizona. But how are they connected to Mesa Monkey Farm?

Mesa history: All that remains of the PFA sanctuary today are the ruins out on Higley Road

We left off last week telling the story of Paul and Jo Fritz, who established the Primate Foundation of Arizona in 1970 to care for neglected and rejected chimpanzees.

Starting initially in their small Tempe apartment, the pair moved to the Suncrest Poultry Farm on McClintock Drive in Tempe to accommodate the increasing number of chimps that were being delivered into their care.

In 1973, they made another move — to an isolated patch of desert in east Mesa on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community reservation land. Their new home was among the ruins of an early electrical power plant dating to 1914.

The remote location was ideal for caring for and raising chimpanzees far from curiosity seekers, tourists and prying eyes.

Trying to get by


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By 1982, PFA housed 37 chimps. But funds were always in short supply. According to Adam Bray, who wrote about the Fritz’s for National Geographic in 2013, “The couple lived on food stamps, and much of the food for the chimps was donated by grocery stores.”

Phoenix Gazette reporter Barbara Yost, who featured PFA in a 1982 article, wrote, “The Primate Foundation depends on contributions for its existence. All medical and veterinary services are donated, food is donated by local grocers and a private foundation — which chooses to remain anonymous — offers financial support.”

Finally, not long after Yost’s article, and, nearly out of funds, the Fritzs began offering their chimps for biomedical hepatitis research.

The National Institutes of Health for Research Resources contracted with the foundation in 1986 to breed chimps for HIV/AIDS research. The decision was not without detractors.

Bray wrote, “PFA’s switch from sanctuary to NIH laboratory was controversial, but Jo Fritz was unapologetic about the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research. However, her concern for them as individuals was evident.

“Apart from a few chimps that were subjected to vaccine trials and intrauterine device (birth control) testing, the chimps at PFA were not used for medical experimentation. Instead, they were used as case studies for improvement in the quality of life and management of captive chimpanzees.”

Slow decline


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The NIH started reducing the use of chimpanzees for experiments in 2000, leading to a slow decline of the PFA.

Working with ASU and other institutions, the PFA created an intern program. Even with assistance, it was not enough.

Fearing for the future of their animals, the Fritzs decided to close their desert sanctuary in 2006 — announcing the chimps would be sent to MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research in Bastrup, Texas.

There is evidence that PFA continued operating until about 2010. Jo Fritz died in 2012 a month before her 78th birthday.

For unexplained reasons, Paul Fritz disappeared from newspaper accounts after about 2000.

All that remains of the PFA sanctuary today are the ruins out on Higley Road — leading to the “Monkey Farm” myth and speculation. But now you know the real story.

Reach historian Jay Mark at [email protected]


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