2012-07-26 / Top News


The Center for Great Apes gives sanctuary to homeless celebr ity primates

C’MON TELL THE TRUTH. DID you laugh or chuckle even a bit at the image of the well- dressed chimpanzees monkeying around during the CareerBuilder ad on the Super Bowl?

Or how about the CareerBuilder’s video board meeting where chimpanzees frolic around and scoff at a human executive trying to conduct a board meeting?

They are funny. They make us laugh and smile with their antics and silly mayhem. That’s why companies like CareerBuilder keep putting chimps and other great apes in commercials and in the entertainment business.

But at what expense to the primate talent?

When Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars and Indiana Jones series retire, they should not have much to worry about. Each of the Hollywood superstars and film producers’ dollar worth is in the high millions and billions, according to Forbes Magazine. That’s not chimp change.

Bottom right: Bam Bam Bottom right: Bam Bam But not all Hollywood stars have it so good when they leave the industry. In fact, some of Hollywood’s funniest and most beloved stars wind up homeless and with not an asset to their name.

For great ape stars like Bubbles, Popi and Bam Bam, there is no golden parachute to fall back on or luxury Beverly Hills home to go to. When these primates were shown the exit door because they outlived their usefulness on the movie set, or became too strong as they grew from cuddly babies and adolescents to adults, they were not given a handsome severance package or even a caretaker to make sure they had a place to stay.

Most chimps that are removed from the entertainment business wind up in medical research labs, or in a tiny cage tucked away from other fellow apes.

The lucky ones like Bubbles — who once belonged to the late pop star Michael Jackson — Popi and Bam Bam — who starred in a TV soap opera “Passions” — get rescued and taken to the Great Ape Center in Wauchula.

Top: The outside habitats at the center are three stories tall. It costs $20,000 per ape to care for the animals. 
COURTESY PHOTOS Top: The outside habitats at the center are three stories tall. It costs $20,000 per ape to care for the animals. COURTESY PHOTOS Here these former stars and more than 40 other chimpanzees and orangutans live out their lives in serene surroundings.

The non-profit sanctuary was founded more than 15 years ago and is accredited by The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. Its sole focus is the care of chimpanzees and orangutans — great apes.

The center came to the attention of Palm Beach Gardens real estate attorney Wally Baldwin, who organized a recent fundraiser at Seasons 52 banquet room. Mr. Baldwin learned about the Center for Great Apes through a film called “Project NIM” that aired on television.

Right: The center provides toys and activities to keep the great apes occupied. Right: The center provides toys and activities to keep the great apes occupied. He’s now an ardent supporter. When Mr. Baldwin met with founder and executive director Patti Ragan, she and the center took his breath away, he said.

“I was not only struck with the beauty and high intelligence of the animals, but the work,” he said.

The recent mixer, which Ms. Ragan attended, raised about $4,000. Mr. Baldwin said he is planning to organize more events in Palm Beach County.

“What really touched me was going there,” Mr. Baldwin said, referring to a visit to the center. “They are really good people trying to make a difference in the lives of animals that would otherwise have a bleak existence.”

The center is nestled within 120 acres of rural, tree-laden property. There the apes spend their time roaming through an above-ground tunnel system and roomy enclosures. They have toys, enrichment activities such as material to create art, and donated iPads to play with.

On hot days, the apes — most of which eat vegetarian-based diets — get fruity popsicles and kiddie pools to use. Many choose to stay cool in their night houses.

What they don’t have are entertainment businesses trying to make money off of them or misguided people trying to keep them as pets.

Here the apes are apes and treated as such.

It is as close to the tropical rain forests and jungles as they can get.

For Ms. Ragan, this is all she wants for them.

“Great apes are intelligent,” said Ms. Ragan.

Ms. Ragan began her mission to help save and care for great apes more than 20 years ago when she began caring for an orangutan and fostering an infant chimpanzee for a Miami-based zoo.

Ms. Ragan is like a battle officer who must keep sentry over many fronts. She provides homes for apes from the entertainment industry and well-meaning private citizens who can no longer care for their ape pets that they get as babies. But she also is facing the formidable front of the palm oil business, which is destroying habitat for many orangutans in places like Sumatra.

Top: Michael Jackson with Bubbles Top: Michael Jackson with Bubbles “Palm oil companies slash and burn habitat to replace with palm trees,” Ms. Ragan said. Common food items such as granola bars are made with palm oil.

She urges the public to boycott the use of palm oil-based products. She reasons that if people stop buying the products, the need to destroy habitats for the production from palm trees will halt.

In the meantime, Ms. Ragan said she must make sure that the center has what it needs to care for its residents. These needs come in the form of elaborate, large and well-constructed enclosures. And because male orangutans cannot be with other males, allowances and special structures must be made.

Left:: Chimps Angel and Mowgli. Left:: Chimps Angel and Mowgli. These specially designed facilities and enclosures don’t come cheap. Right now the center needs $50,000 to complete an orangutan enclosure that when finished will house two females — Popi and Allie — as well as two males. This structure must be attached to their night houses and central tunnel and chutes system, Ms. Ragan said.

It costs about $20,000 per ape to care for the residents.

The center relies on donations to feed and care for their primate residents. In spring the center holds an open house for new members to tour the private facility and during the year, the staff works to increase donations through planned giving and the Ape Guardian program.

Though the center’s goal is to give a permanent home to ape rescues and retirees, Ms. Ragan also hopes to make people aware of the need to not support apes in the entertainment business, or as pets.

They might look cute and funny in shows and movies and even in your living room. But those young apes grow up to weigh more than 200 pounds, and become very strong, Ms. Ragan said.

She sighs as she talks about the center, and goes on rounds checking on some sick apes on a recent morning. There is no rest for Ms. Ragan, who has made protecting and caring for apes her life’s mission. The soft-spoken woman, who shuns any kind of accolades for her work, says there is a need to care for all of our fellow animals.

“We’re all on this planet together,” Ms. Ragan said. ¦

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