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Gorilla's death leaves big void at sanctuary

Published June 15, 2007

[Times photo: Lance Aram Rothstein]
Otto, a star of the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, appeared in ads for the luggage company American Tourister.

[Times file photo]
At three years old, Otto accepts a drink from his owner, Bob Noell of Tarpon Springs, at the family's "chimp farm."

PALM HARBOR - Otto, the 550-pound gorilla who was one of the best-known residents of the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, has died.

The massive ape who loved toothbrushes and Hula Hoops died Saturday after suffering from severe colitis. He was 42.

The loss has left a void at the animal sanctuary on Alt. U.S. 19, where Otto served as a very big brother to all.

"I believe I've been very blessed to know him, " said Debbie Cobb, an outreach coordinator who works at the sanctuary. "I've had the privilege of him being in my life."

Among the fondest memories for volunteer Irina Rafalski is Otto's ability to coo - yes, gorillas coo, but it sounds more like a grunt - when a familiar face walked by his cage.

"It was his way of saying, 'I love you, '" Rafalski said.

Otto was born in Africa and then sold to the Houston City Zoo, where he was on display in the 1960s. After developing septic arthritis, Otto was purchased by Anna Mae and Robert Noell, Palm Harbor farmers and circus owners. The couple made Otto a part of their show of gorillas and "boxing" chimpanzees.

By the late 1990s, both of the Noells had died, and Otto was moved to the sanctuary.

Many of the animals at the 19, 000-square-foot outdoor facility are former pets that owners could no longer care for or were once used in laboratory tests.

Otto served as an anchor at the facility in more ways than one. Passers-by couldn't miss the hulking gorilla perched inside the massive cage in the middle of the facility. Volunteers often chatted with Otto only to get a knowing grunt or nod from him.

Otto, a lowland gorilla, fell sick a few weeks ago and died despite the medical care he received in his final days, Cobb said. At 42, Otto was considered elderly. His remains will undergo taxidermy for scientific purposes, Rafalski said.

He was one of the more famous animals to live at the sanctuary, appearing in a 1996 print ad for the luggage company American Tourister.

But the extent of Otto's celebrity appears to be open to debate.

The sanctuary's Web site - - says Otto also starred in American Tourister's famous television ads, which featured a gorilla jumping up and down on a suitcase.

But several online sources credit human actor Don McLeod with playing the role while dressed in an elaborate gorilla costume.

In other ways, according to Otto's sanctuary biography, Otto's life was an open book.

He loved water games, grapes, lettuce, celery and peaches. He painted with his fingers and tongue and liked hairbrushes, blankets and baby toys. He had a television, and like many big guys, he loved to watch football.

Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at or 727 445-4162.

[Last modified June 15, 2007, 06:55:21]

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