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Volunteer attacked by chimp sues Suncoast Primate Sanctuary Foundation

PALM HARBOR — A volunteer who survived a vicious chimpanzee attack at a local animal sanctuary filed a suit against the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary Foundation this week.

Andrea Maturen, 23, was attacked on Feb. 12, 2010, while cleaning a cage at the sanctuary, formerly known as Noell's Ark Chimp Farm. Shawn, a 75-pound chimpanzee, jumped on Maturen and bit the back of her head after opening a door in an adjacent cage. The attack continued as Shawn chased Maturen around the sanctuary.

Maturen said sanctuary officials initially told her they'd help her with her medical bills, which topped out at $55,000. But months later, they offered her about $50 a month, she said.

She's having a hard time putting the incident behind her with the bills looming over her head, she said.

"It's super stressful," Maturen said. "It makes it impossible for me to emotionally move on from it."

Outreach coordinator Debbie Cobb and her husband Jon, a foundation officer, were also named in the suit.

Among other allegations, Maturen's suit claims that the sanctuary and the Cobbs failed to obtain immediate and proper medical care for her. It also accuses them of "misleading law enforcement," causing a delay in the treatment of her injuries and unnecessary pain.

Maturen sustained a deep cut in the back of her head, a broken thumb, a gaping mouth-shaped wound on her elbow, and various bites and scratches.

Debbie Cobb referred a call for comment to her attorney, saying, "I'm just not going to entertain anyone that's not in the best interest of the sanctuary, or the animals or even for Andrea."

Cobb's Tampa lawyer, Thomas Dandar, said he hasn't seen the entire complaint yet, but said, "I deny most of the allegations in there." He said he was surprised Maturen filed a lawsuit.

Earlier this year, Maturen told the St. Petersburg Times she was angry to discover that the Cobbs and other sanctuary workers kept a deputy waiting outside the sanctuary on Alt. U.S. 19 while she lay bleeding inside.

The day of the attack, no one from the sanctuary called 911.

A deputy responded after a patron at the facility called authorities. The deputy said sanctuary workers were evasive about Maturen's condition and refused to let him into the sanctuary, according to a Pinellas County Sheriff's Office report.

"Looking at the time line, it appears Andrea (Maturen) was at the sanctuary with severe and potentially life-threatening injuries while I was outside trying to find out what happened and check on her," the deputy wrote. "She went over an hour before receiving medical treatment at (a clinic). I believe I was intentionally misled about her condition, about what happened and her location."

About 10 minutes after the attack, Maturen said she found refuge in the sanctuary bathroom, where she lay bleeding. Several minutes later, after another volunteer called the Cobbs, she heard the Cobbs trying to lure Shawn back to her enclosure.

Eventually, unbeknownst to the deputy outside, Maturen was ushered into the car of another volunteer, who followed Jon Cobb to a walk-in medical clinic about five or 10 minutes away, Maturen said. To get there, they would have likely passed Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital and its emergency room.

Maturen's father is outraged about how his daughter was treated.

"You would think the main thing would be getting help for whoever was injured," said Bill Maturen, who lives near Largo. "The hell with the monkeys."

The suit, filed Monday, also accuses the sanctuary of negligence for not making sure "dangerous wild animals" at the facility were safely secured and segregated from the volunteers. The case specifically claims that the sanctuary created a risky situation because it failed to use a self-locking cage door or other mechanism to keep the adult chimpanzees from escaping. And it alleges that the sanctuary failed to have adequate protections in place, such as a panic button, in case of such attacks.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the lead agency that investigated the attack, said the sanctuary was not criminally liable.

The 12.5-acre sanctuary is just north of Alderman Road on Alt. U.S. 19. It houses dozens of animals, mostly primates.

Maturen's suit requests financial compensation and says she endured various traumas, including permanent injuries, significant scarring, mental pain and suffering, and lost wages.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

Volunteer attacked by chimp sues Suncoast Primate Sanctuary Foundation 04/08/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 8, 2011 7:24pm]
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