PALM HARBOR — An international animal rights group is chiming in on the Feb. 12 chimpanzee attack at a local primate sanctuary.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has written a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's animal care division urging an investigation of the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor.
The organization asked the agency to revoke the sanctuary's license if it finds violations of the Animal Welfare Act.
The sanctuary's outreach coordinator, Debbie Cobb, said she's not surprised that PETA complained to the USDA.
"Animal rights and PETA people just want to be in the news," Cobb said.
Last week, sanctuary volunteer Andrea Maturen, 22, was attacked by a chimpanzee named Shawn while Maturen was cleaning an adjacent cage. Two chimps got out of their cage and entered the one that Maturen was cleaning because workers failed to secure a lock between the cages and to move the chimps to a cage farther away, authorities said. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigated the incident and found that the sanctuary was not criminally liable.
PETA's letter recounts details of the attack and the concerns of a Pinellas County sheriff's deputy, who found sanctuary workers evasive, uncooperative and deceptive on the day of the attack.
"The recent attack and the facility's reportedly uncooperative response to local authorities indicate continued dangerous and unprofessional conduct at (the facility)," wrote Lisa Wathne, a captive exotic animal specialist for PETA.
The sheriff's deputy's report said workers repeatedly refused to let him inside or to contact Maturen and delayed treatment of her injuries, which were serious.
Maturen spent a weekend in a hospital, where doctors cleaned an elbow wound and stitched up others on the back of her head and thighs. She'll also need surgery to repair tendons in her right hand, she said.
On Friday, Wathne also questioned the name of the sanctuary, calling the cages where it houses animals "unnatural" and "substandard."
"We would never classify this place as a sanctuary," Wathne said "It's nothing more than a roadside menagerie."
Shawn reacted the way she did because she's a wild animal, Wathne said, but the conditions there may have contributed to Shawn's aggressive behavior.
In comparison, Wathne touted the Center for Great Apes, a sanctuary in Wauchula, as an ideal environment. There, chimpanzees stay in large outdoor enclosures with climbing structures, swinging vines and attached indoor "night houses," according to the center's Web site.
Cobb defended accommodations at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary and said workers offer a daily variety of activities, such as ball games and finger painting, to enrich and stimulate the animals.
The 121/2-acre park, which abuts the Pinellas Trail, houses dozens of animals, mostly primates. In the 1990s, PETA called the sanctuary one of the worst roadside zoos in the country. In 1999, the USDA stripped the sanctuary of its license for public exhibitions, citing small, rusty cages used to house the apes. The state also had concerns about undersized cages. It took nine years for the sanctuary to receive the USDA license and to reopen to the public.
The Fish and Wildlife commission works with the USDA, but their responsibilities are slightly different, said Gary Morse, agency spokesman. The USDA also enforces regulations that deal with animals on display to the public, he said.
Steve DeLacure, an investigator for the commission who has worked in the area for about 14 years, said the sanctuary has made great strides over the past several years.
"It meets or exceeds the standards of the state at this time," said DeLacure, who investigated the recent incident.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4155.