Monday, October 11, 2004


From sideshow to sanctuary

The Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, once a dilapidated roadside zoo, has updated its facilities and is awaiting USDA approval to reopen to the public.

...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....

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."...