Friday, February 07, 2003

TROUBLED CHIMP FARM

Public Primates
DAVID SOMMER dsommer@tampatrib.com
The Suncoast Primate Sanctuary must open to the public, after it gets its federal and state licenses in order.

PALM HARBOR - For the 28 apes who make the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary their home, this is the final stretch.

The shuttered roadside attraction, known for decades as Noell's Chimp Farm, must open to the public by the end of June or it will lose its state license to possess wildlife for exhibition.

But the federal government has banned the 49-year-old facility from putting the orangutans, chimpanzees and one lone gorilla on display. After the old Chimp Farm failed a series of five federal inspections in the late 1990s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture got an administrative law judge to permanently revoke the facility' s Animal Welfare Act license and fine it $25,000.

Meanwhile, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission last year granted the newly formed, nonprofit Suncoast Primate Sanctuary a state license to possess Class I wildlife, which includes all the apes, on the condition that it obtains a new federal license and begins exhibiting the animals to the public no later than June 30.

"It's kind of like a Catch-22," said Maj. Kyle Hill of the wildlife commission. "Our license says they have to exhibit, and the federal [government] says they can't."...

The Chimp Farm was frequently the target of animal abuse complaints and once was listed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals as one of the worst offenders in the nation....

Also living at the former Chimp Farm is Cheetah - or at least one of the Cheetahs - who appeared in the Tarzan films of the 1930s and 1940s. Today he is an energetic, gray-muzzled 70-something who loves to eat peanut butter and mug for an audience....

Some of the chimpanzees already are living in the new ape house, while others remain in cages that appear to be antiques....

The state wildlife officer said there will be no more second chances if the sanctuary does not obtain a federal license allowing it to open to the public before the end of June....