The Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, once a dilapidated roadside zoo, has updated its facilities and is awaiting USDA approval to reopen to the public.
By NICK COLLINS
Published October 11, 2004
[Times photos: Douglas R. Clifford]
Chimpanzees Lucy and Shawn reach through the cage for some "psychological enrichment,'' in this case a toy piano that keeps them entertained.
Debbie Geehring of Palm Harbor loses her glasses Thursday but keeps her grip on Bob, a fidgety 4-month-old chimpanzee, at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor. The sanctuary is trying to reopen to the public after a five-year hiatus.
PALM HARBOR - There's a cold, hard cage a few feet south of the main entrance of the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary.
It's on the uncomfortable side of small, its bars thick and uninviting.
It's empty. And it will stay that way.
The abandoned cage serves as a reminder of the facility's shameful past as a decrepit roadside zoo and as a silent thank you to the donors who made the pen obsolete.
A five-year fundraising campaign has helped the nonprofit sanctuary construct nearly all of its planned 19,000-square-foot facility at 4600 Alt. U.S. 19. One section is yet to be completed, but all of the sanctuary's 45 primates now live in spacious enclosures filled with barrels, tires and toys. And staff members said they hope the sanctuary soon will reopen its doors.
In 1999, the sanctuary, known for years as Noell's Ark Chimp Farm, was closed to the public because its inhabitants were kept in small rusty cages that did not meet U.S. Department of Agriculture standards.
In 2001, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission denied the renewal of the sanctuary's state license for owning exotic animals because of similar problems.
But the primates' new homes all meet or exceed federal and state requirements, said Pam Gilbert, great-ape coordinator for the sanctuary.
After appealing the denial of its state license, the sanctuary was granted permission to keep its animals on a probationary basis, said Capt. Linda Harrison of the state fish and wildlife commission. The commission inspected the construction of the new facility in 2003 and granted the sanctuary a full license that runs through September 2005. Harrison added that the habitats were "very nice."
The sanctuary has applied for a license with the USDA and asked for an inspection, said Jim Rogers, a spokesman for the animal, plant and health inspection service at the USDA. Rogers declined to discuss the sanctuary's case in detail, citing USDA policies for pending applications.
The sanctuary's attorney, Tom Dandar of Tampa, said the USDA denied the sanctuary's first request for relicensing in a letter dated Aug. 17. The USDA's letter stated the sanctuary could not receive a license if it had permanent staff members left over from the Chimp Farm because an organization cannot regain a license once it has been revoked.
Dandar said the sanctuary's full-time staff is composed of new members. He said he expects to clear things up at a USDA hearing, which should be scheduled soon.
Most of the USDA regulations are similar to those of the state, but there are some distinctions, Harrison said. One of the greatest differences is the USDA's examination of the level of psychological enrichment the animals receive.
Christy Holley, president of the sanctuary's board of directors, said she hoped the renewal of the sanctuary's state license means USDA approval won't be far behind.
"We know we're above and beyond the federal standards," Holley said. "We hope it's just a matter of paperwork being done. But we won't know for sure until they (the USDA) get the ball moving."
The sanctuary's main facility has outdoor chain-link enclosures of 300 and 500 square feet, which house some of the sanctuary's larger occupants: chimpanzees and orangutans.
Lucy and Shawn, two of the younger chimpanzees, share an enclosure filled with barrels and swings. After drinking from a hose held by volunteer Richard Meunier while hanging upside down from the chain-link fence Thursday, Lucy jumped down for some "psychological enrichment."
Psychological enrichment is anything that helps the primates focus and stay entertained, said Gilbert, the great-ape coordinator. In this case Lucy bangs away at a toy piano with Meunier, creating a loud, random song. After a few minutes of their duet, Lucy decided she was through and smacked the piano to the ground.
Lucy then rocked back and forth while making a juvenile spitting noise, clearly pleased with herself.
"She told me I was out of tune," Meunier said.
The sanctuary also houses a baboon, blackhanded spider monkeys, capuchin monkeys, a lesser spotted guenon, rhesus macaques, a squirrel monkey and a vervet monkey. The largest primate at the sanctuary is Otto, a 550-pound silverback gorilla.
Otto came out of the shady back section of his cage to meet Gilbert when she walked by, and he leaned on a plastic barrel to examine his visitor.
After a few minutes, he grabbed the barrel and shoved it at break-neck speed to the other side of his cage.
"Every once in a while he'll do his tough-guy routine," Gilbert said. She turned to Otto. "Who's a tough guy?"
Otto likes to play with Hula hoops and often wears them around his neck as necklaces.
The youngest inhabitant of the sanctuary is a 4-month-old chimpanzee named Bob, after the Chimp Farm's founder, Bob Noell. Baby Bob, as he's called by all the volunteers, wears a diaper and is under constant human supervision, Gilbert said.
Baby Bob's parents, Maggie and Maggilan, live at the sanctuary too. But Maggie, who's about 40 years old, didn't produce any milk, so Baby Bob had to be raised on a bottle.
He is taken home each night by volunteers who have a license to handle primates, said Debbie Geehring, the sanctuary's office coordinator.
"He doesn't like his car seat very much," Geehring said. "He makes quite a fuss."
Baby Bob has his own cradle, but prefers sleeping on his caretakers' chests, Geehring said.
As volunteers raise the newest member of the sanctuary's community, they're working to shed the place's negative reputation.
The Chimp Farm was founded in 1954 by the Noells, who were both from families that performed medicine shows along the Atlantic seaboard. The Noells owned chimpanzees that would box and wrestle male volunteers in a traveling show. In 1971, they ended their circuit and settled on their property on Alt. U.S. 19 south of Tarpon Springs. After they retired, they cared for abandoned animals, mostly apes and monkeys.
When it was open during the 1990s, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals received regular complaints from the Chimp Farm's visitors, said Amy Rhodes, senior animals in entertainment specialist. PETA stopped by for a visit and wrote an articles in its magazine.
"We deemed them one of the worst roadside zoos in the country," Rhodes said.
PETA complained to the USDA and played a role in the Chimp Farm losing its USDA license in 1999, Rhodes said.
She said no one from PETA has been out to sanctuary since it closed, but the organization has checked the sanctuary's Web site.
Rhodes said the new facility looks better, but still does not provide enough for the animals' welfare.
"It seems like they're boasting about it, and it's nothing more than concrete and metal," Rhodes said. "They're not coming close to what these animals would have in the wild. So we're not hopeful. ... We'll certainly keep a close eye on it."
The sanctuary's facility cost about $225,000, not including donated labor from local contracting firms, said Geehring, the sanctuary's office coordinator.
The sanctuary staff is planning a $25,000 addition with an extra enclosure and features to improve the way animals are moved from cage to cage.
The sanctuary also is in the early stages of planning an educational zoo, a building that could be constructed to the south of the current facilities during the next few years.
This would help accommodate lectures and other learning programs put on by the sanctuary.
Such a facility would improve a Tarpon High School program that already has begun taking advantage of what the sanctuary has to offer, said Debora Edwards, a teacher for the veterinary science academy at Tarpon Springs High.
Since the school year began, Edwards has taken her most advanced class to the sanctuary each Tuesday to observe and work with the animals, she said.
"The students can have first-hand experience and close encounters with the exotic animals there," Edwards said. "It's so much better than just reading out of a book."
The transformation the sanctuary has undergone has turned it into a safe and humane environment for the animals, Edwards said.
She added that the sanctuary's staff put together handouts for her students and has helped with lectures.
"Without it (the sanctuary), the real-life atmosphere would be unavailable," Edwards said. "They've opened their arms, their doors and their minds to share their knowledge."
And soon they'll try to open a place that makes sure a past of cold, hard cages gives way to something that benefits both the public and the primates.
"They enjoy the company," Gilbert said. "Some of them like to show off. Anything that enriches their day is good for them."