Monday, December 09, 2002

ROADSIDE ZOO ATTEMPTS REBIRTH

The home stretch for haven?
The former roadside attraction, which must reopen to the public by summer, appeals for donations.

[Times photo: Scott Keeler] Debbie Cobb of the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor visits with Cheetah, a chimpanzee that wound up in a research lab after a stint in Hollywood.

PALM HARBOR -- Cheetah the aging chimpanzee savored his midday snack of grapefruit like a child munching a handful of candy. Later, a handsome 550-pound gorilla named Otto daintily sucked on a Tang slushy.

For them, this might be the highlight of their day.

Cheetah and Otto are some of the menagerie of animals at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, which is the new and improved version of the storied Noell's Ark Chimp Farm on Alt. U.S. 19.

The decades-old roadside attraction was closed to the public about four years ago after state and federal officials found that it kept animals in undersized and outdated cages....

Federal officials charged the Chimp Farm with using cages that were rusty, small, dirty and had jagged edges; keeping incomplete records about the animals; improperly storing food and bedding; and housing animals in uncomfortable conditions.

Supporters say they are doing what they can with meager resources and they hope that the public understands that the facility is no longer a tacky roadside attraction.

"We really hope that people understand we are a sanctuary now," Stiteler said. "What we are doing is God's work."

Not everyone believes that the facility can change.

The Chimp Farm was castigated by an animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The facility "was easily one of the worst roadside zoos in the country when it was in operation," said Amy Rhodes, a PETA animals-in-entertainment specialist in Norfolk, Va.

"They have a long and sordid history of neglecting animals," Rhodes said. "I cannot believe that all of a sudden they have decided to turn things around when all these years they have just been in it for profit."...