Sometimes, the chimpanzees, gorilla and macaque paint pictures that are sold to raise funds for the Palm Harbor sanctuary where they live. Other times, they just eat the paint.
By VANESSA DE LA TORRE
Published January 23, 2006
[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
Lucy was covered with paint after caretakers tried to coax her into working on a painting. Volunteers admit the red paint tastes a little fruity. Below, an example of a finished painting.
PALM HARBOR - The thing about chimps is that they paint whenever they darn well feel like it.
Spoonfuls of banana-flavored yogurt might coax them into lifting a paintbrush, but only an inspired chimp will take the brush and swirl, splash or even stroke the white canvas.
Otherwise, the scene becomes a spectacle in refusal.
The chimps at Suncoast Primate Sanctuary Foundation - like mad painters frustrated with their art - ponder their brushes before doing something that seems part instinct and part bravado.
They eat the paint.
Regardless of how the work gets done, the prices for the primate masterpieces are soaring like Florida real estate. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration. When the folks at the nonprofit sanctuary started selling the artwork as a fundraiser about a year ago, the watercolor, pastel and abstract paintings often went for about $25 each.
But that proved to be too much of a bargain, said caretaker Debbie Cobb, having just spent the better part of Thursday afternoon appealing to the creative instincts of five chimpanzees, a crab-eating macaque and one 600-pound gorilla named Otto.
"It takes so long to get them to do one," said Cobb, granddaughter of Bob and Mae Noell, founders of what for decades was known as Noell's Ark Chimp Farm on Alt. U.S. 19.
Cobb said the suggested donation is now between $50 and $150, depending on the species and the size of the painting.
All the proceeds go toward rebuilding the sanctuary, which has already undergone a major overhaul sparked by controversy.
In 1999, the U.S. Department of Agriculture revoked the Chimp Farm's federal license and forced the facility to stop showing its animals to the public. Among other charges, inspectors found that cages at the former roadside zoo were too small and rusty, with dirt and jagged edges.
The sanctuary is still closed to the public, but sanctuary workers say they're working toward finishing a 19,000-square-foot Great Ape Habitat for their 22 chimps, three orangutans and Otto the gorilla.
The paintings are a small part of the fundraising for the $250,000 project, but it helps. So far, they've sold about two dozen.
The primates, Cobb said, have always painted as a hobby. She thinks painting helps enrich their lives. A lot of them even use sidewalk chalk to decorate their living space.
Otto is the sanctuary's most well-known resident artist. A lowland gorilla with a silvery back and copper hair on his head, his story goes something like this: He weighed 60 pounds and had tuberculosis and septic arthritis when a man sold him to the Chimp Farm in 1971. He was going to be euthanized, volunteers say, and would be dead had a caretaker not quarantined herself with him for six months, nursing him back to health.
Now, at 600 pounds, he could kill a man with one playful swipe.
"He's our own King Kong," said Jan Stiffler, a great ape coordinator.
The staff made him a modified paintbrush about 3 feet long. Sometimes, he paints through the steel bars of his enclosure as a volunteer holds the canvas. Always, he handles the brush gently.
One of his works, "a pretty green painting," said Stiffler, was sent to the Late Show with David Letterman for a segment called "Primate or Artist?"
"He's pretty good. He just takes the brush," she said. "Hey, they're all abstract, you know."
Thursday, the first painter of the day was a rambunctious young chimp named Bobby. Workers sat the 18-month-old at a picnic table and gave him an assortment of markers and paints, all colorful and nontoxic.
Instead of painting, Bobby tried to demolish the canvas, pounding his little fists into the white space.
"Acting like a little chimp, Bob!" Stiffler joked.
Next up were Johnny and Sheila, a pair of veteran painters born in 1948 and 1944, respectively. The chimps live in the same outdoor enclosure, and when coaxed they tend to paint together.
After Cobb slipped the canvas onto the concrete floor of their cage, Johnny immediately started to work: eating the paint.
Sheila, on the other hand, earned praise and purple grapes for putting the markers to the small board she was given.
At that point, Johnny stopped eating long enough to take a brush dipped in pink paint, earning his own cheers from the volunteers.
Then, he put both hands on the brush as if he would snap it in two. In the enclosure next door, Kongo the former boxing chimp was hopping and screaming, seemingly encouraging the mischief.
But Cobb didn't take any chances. "Give it back, Johnny," she said.
Next up was Philip the macaque and chimps Shawn and Lucy.
Even Shawn, whose fingerpainting skills will be featured in an upcoming book called Amazing Animals , was having an off day, distracted perhaps by visitors. Instead of a symmetrical primate masterpiece, blue paint dripped from her mouth like drool.
Her pal, Lucy, climbed the walls, jabbering with what looked like rouge on her lips. Volunteers admit the red paint does taste a little fruity.
When it comes to chimp art, "there is some thought process," said Pam Gabriel, another great ape coordinator. "What that means in chimp, I don't know."
So they turned to Otto.
Like a champ, the gorilla accepted the blue marker with his mouth, puckering his lips.
But inspiration proved elusive.
Minutes passed and the canvas was still a hodgepodge of the primate doodling.
Six people watched and waited, encouraging his every movement. He, too, ate paint. Perhaps it was all too much pressure.
"Okay, give it to me," Cobb said quietly, looking into his eyes. "If you're done, you're done. I respect that."
[Last modified January 23, 2006, 09:02:58]
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