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    Fire at former Chimp Farm is called suspicious

    With volunteers' help, however, animals at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary are kept safe and calm.

    By RICHARD DANIELSON, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 13, 2003

    PALM HARBOR -- A fire Friday night that destroyed several old travel trailers just a few yards from animal cages at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary was intentionally set, a state Fire Marshal's investigator said Saturday.

    With no electricity to the five vacant trailers and one semitrailer container that burned, someone started the fire, state investigator Randy St. Clair said. "Stuff just doesn't burst into flames by itself."

    The fire was the second suspicious blaze in four days on the grounds of the sanctuary, known for decades as Noell's Ark Chimp Farm. Early Tuesday evening, a small fire burned through a storage shed stuffed with old magazines, gas grills, furniture, toys and other junk.

    Friday's fire started shortly before 9:30 p.m. and quickly turned into a much bigger and more intense conflagration.

    When firefighters arrived, flames from the old trailers, which had been connected under a common roof on the southern part of the property shot 30 to 50 feet into the air.

    The burning mobile homes sat within 25 feet of the nearest animal cages, but officials and managers of the facility said none of the 60 animals on the property was injured. Firefighters contained the fire quickly and then spent the better part of 90 minutes extinguishing flames fed by junk stored in the sheet-metal structures.

    There was so much gas and other flammable liquids stored in the trailers that on Saturday investigators couldn't use an accelerant-sniffing dog to search the debris, St. Clair said.

    "It was pretty much a defensive operation from the very beginning," said Palm Harbor Fire Rescue Lt. Charlie Anderson, an acting district chief who was the incident commander. Eventually, about 30 firefighters from Palm Harbor, East Lake, Tarpon Springs, Dunedin and Safety Harbor were called in to help work the fire. No one was injured.

    Alt. U.S. 19 south of Klosterman Road was closed for more than 2 hours because of the fire. Smoke drifted to U.S. 19, about 11/2 miles to the east.

    Along with emergency personnel, a half-dozen or more sanctuary volunteers rushed to the property to comfort animals they care for every day. As a result, the animals remained remarkably calm and quiet as firefighters worked to knock down flames a few yards away. Several times, water from fire hoses sprayed over the travel trailers and into side-by-side cages occupied by Mrs. Bear, a grizzly/brown bear hybrid that is about 40 years old, and Laverne, a 9-year-old macaque monkey. Both paced a bit, but neither made any noise.

    The same was true of a nearby pair of goats named Pie and T.C., as well as Otto, a 37-year-old, 550-pound lowland gorilla in a cage another 20 or so feet away.

    "That's because the caregivers are here, and that's because they see the people helping," said Debbie Cobb, 43, the granddaughter of the facility's founders and a director of the nonprofit organization that now manages the facility.

    Throughout the fire, she walked around the facility, comforting animals and talking to volunteers sitting or standing near cages.

    "I'll be back, Otto," she told the gorilla before leaving on a quick tour of the property. When a volunteer asked why the animals were so quiet, she said, "because we're all here. That's a good thing.

    "I'm thankful" the animals were not hurt, Cobb said. "I'm just concerned for whoever did it, because they need help."

    As of Saturday afternoon, officials had no suspects in Friday's fire. The state Fire Marshal planned to offer a $2,500 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case, St. Clair said. He didn't know yet whether the two fires were related, "but we're looking into it."

    Four juveniles were detained or questioned by sheriff's deputies after the first fire last week, St. Clair said. Cobb said she spoke to one of the boys that night and recognized him as one of many juveniles who come to help maintain the facility as part of community service. The boy was back on the property Saturday as part of the program, which Cobb said the sanctuary's board has decided to shut down.

    "I'm really trying not to focus on that one individual or that person until I really know what happened," she said.

    The sanctuary -- an assemblage of old buildings, outdoor cages and a large new facility under construction -- has a colorful and sometimes controversial history.

    It was founded in 1954 by Robert and Mae Noell, each of whom was born to families that performed in medicine shows along the Atlantic seaboard. In 1939, they had spent $300 to buy a chimpanzee named Snookie, the first in a series of chimps that boxed and wrestled with male volunteers in town after town.

    The Noells gave up the show circuit and settled permanently on their property south of Tarpon Springs in 1971. After they retired, they developed a reputation for taking in abandoned, old and sick animals, mostly apes and monkeys.

    But the facility could not keep up with changing government regulations that required larger cages for exotic animals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture revoked the license for the decades-old roadside attraction in 1999 and forced it to close its doors to the public because of its rusty, small and dirty cages and poor record keeping.

    Since then, volunteers have worked to reopen the facility as a nonprofit sanctuary -- formally known as Suncoast Primate Sanctuary & Wildlife Rehabilitation Center -- that complies with government regulations. In December, the sanctuary's managers estimated they needed about $250,000 to complete its 19,000-square-foot Great Ape Habitat, which has bigger and cleaner enclosures and has been built with donated services.

    On Saturday, Cobb appealed for the donated services of a bulldozer or other heavy equipment that could help clean up the blackened debris. Volunteers can contact the facility at (727) 943-5897 or e-mail it through its Web site,, she said.

    "This is the last thing we needed," she said of the fires. "We need help and we need to stay focused on what ... our agenda is, and this isn't it."

    Cobb said the fires will not deter the organization from pushing ahead to complete the sanctuary and get the approvals it needs to reopen as an educational and rehabilitation center. The place is home to 24 chimps now, she said, and aging or sick animals need someone to care for them just as older and infirm people need hospitals and nursing homes. That, she adds, is the role that the sanctuary intends to fulfill.

    "God is good, and the animals are safe," Cobb said. "That's all I care about."

    -- Richard Danielson can be reached at (727) 445-4194 or .

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