PALM HARBOR — Nearly a decade after the old chimp farm on Alt. U.S. 19 was forced to close its doors to the public after losing its federal exhibition license, the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary is ready for visitors.
The nonprofit organization has received a new license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees compliance to the Animal Welfare Act.
"We had everybody, all the volunteers, laughing and crying when we heard," said Debbie Cobb, primary caregiver to about 75 primates, reptiles and birds.
Cobb is the granddaughter of founders Bob and Mae Noell, who opened the infamous roadside attraction —once known as Noell's Ark Chimp Farm — in 1971.
The Noells, who both came from families that performed traveling medicine shows along the Atlantic seaboard, put together a traveling show of their own in the first half of the 20th century, one that pitted chimpanzees against willing volunteers in boxing matches.
After they retired, the Noells settled just south of Tarpon Springs and began taking in wayward animals — mostly apes and monkeys — and created a retirement home of sorts for aging, ill and neglected animals.
But the campy roadside zoo was riddled with problems as the Noells struggled to keep up with changing regulations governing animal exhibitions.
In the 1990s, the chimp farm was lambasted by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which dubbed it one of the worst roadside zoos in the country.
Though the facility changed its name and received nonprofit status in the mid 1990s, problems persisted.
In 1999, the USDA stripped the sanctuary of its license for public exhibitions, citing small, rusty cages used to house the apes and improper record-keeping.
Two years later, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission declined to renew the facility's state license for keeping exotic animals, citing similar concerns.
After a major renovation was completed in 2003 that included the construction of a 19,000-square-foot Great Ape Habitat, that license was reinstated.
But the sanctuary still couldn't open to the public until it had a valid USDA license from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which regulates animal exhibitions.
Cobb said the mission of the sanctuary is "conservation, education and preservation."
Cobb, who spent many an afternoon at the chimp farm with her grandparents as a child, said the sanctuary is about "bridging the gap" over the full lifespan of the animals, some of which are in their 50s and 60s.
The sanctuary is a place of last resort for abandoned exotic pets, injured wildlife and elderly animals once used in the entertainment field, said Cobb, 48.
"We do assisted living for people. Why aren't we doing assisted living for animals? That's why we're here," she said.
The 12½-acre park which abuts the Pinellas Trail, houses about 75 animals, mostly primates. In addition to orangutan, chimpanzees and various monkeys, the sanctuary also has birds, reptiles, goats and lemurs. Some of their more famous primates include Kongo, one of the Noells' original boxing chimps, and Cheetah, one of the chimps used in the Tarzan movies of the early 1930s.
"The goal of the new organization is to make it go another 50 or 100 years," Cobb said.
The sanctuary is maintained by about 150 volunteers, who provide services from landscaping to animal enrichment.
"I love it," said five-year volunteer June Osterberg, 49. "It's hard work. It's not glamorous work, but it's worth it."
Yearly operating expenses run about $60,000 and are funded primarily through donations, though Cobb has taken out a personal loan to pay for some of the improvements.
Cobb estimated the land could fetch about $6-million in today's economy.
"We could sell this and all be very wealthy, but to know you've given up on something that's bigger than yourself … how do you put a price tag on that?" she said.
Cobb acknowledges the old chimp farm facilities were "antiquated," but lauds her grandparents for their commitment to their animals.
"If we can incorporate what they did so right and incorporate all of the educational components we've added, where can we go wrong?" Cobb said.
Cobb choked up when she described how her grandparents would feel about the reopening.
"I think they would say the animals finally got their day," she said.
Rita Farlow can be reached at (727) 445-4162 or [email protected]