PALM HARBOR — Andrea Maturen, a young but seasoned volunteer, is known to horse around with the chimps she cares for at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary.
Shawn, an 11-year-old chimpanzee, is known for her gentle way, quirky mannerisms and fingerpainting skills.
Friday morning, something went terribly wrong when Shawn relentlessly attacked and chased Maturen, 22, who had been cleaning a nearby cage.
Maturen's arm was severely broken in the scuffle, authorities said. Here's what they say happened:
Around 11:30 a.m., Shawn and another chimp got out of their cage and into an adjacent cage the volunteer was cleaning. Shawn began attacking Maturen. The young woman struggled, but the chimp Shawn kept coming after her.
They both ended up outside the primate sanctuary. Maturen fought to break free, and tried to run inside, but Shawn followed her. Maturen finally had to lock herself in a bathroom to escape Shawn's wrath.
Handlers got the chimps back in their cage, asked everyone to leave and put the sanctuary on lockdown. Maturen was taken to Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital in Tarpon Springs for treatment of serious but non-life-threatening injuries.
"The potential could have been a lot worse," said Lt. Steve De Lacure of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, who is investigating the incident.
Chimpanzees may seem docile and cute, but they can be aggressive, especially in the wild, according to primate experts. They rarely attack people, but there have been cases of violent attacks on humans.
"When you have animals in captivity and you have humans involved, there's always a likelihood of injury," De Lacure said.
Shawn is in heat, and changes in hormones may have affected her behavior, he added.
Sanctuary officials said little about the attack Friday.
Debbie Cobb, the sanctuary's outreach coordinator, said the incident happened because of "human error." The sanctuary's board is also investigating what happened.
Cobb wasn't there, but others at the sanctuary told her that Maturen was able to walk off of the property and that her face appeared to be okay, she said.
De Lacure said at this point in the investigation, there don't seem to be any criminal issues. It appears Maturen and another volunteer didn't follow proper sanctuary protocol, he said.
The caregivers were supposed to move the chimps to another cage farther away and to make sure the door to the adjacent cage was securely locked, he said. But they did neither, he said.
Friday afternoon, De Lacure said he was just starting the investigation.
"I haven't had a chance to talk to the victim," he said. "To be honest, I think they're probably prepping her for surgery."
De Lacure said Maturen had volunteered for the chimp farm for more than five years. She was trained to do all of the maintenance and handling of the animals, he said.
Shawn's fingerpainting skills were featured in a 2006 St. Petersburg Times article about the sanctuary's fundraising efforts.
According to the sanctuary's online bio of Shawn, she is "a very gentle and affectionate chimp." She was named after the veterinarian who saved her life and was raised much like a human baby. In order to ensure she was well socialized, she was given plenty of time with other chimps.
The 12 1/2-acre park, which abuts the Pinellas Trail, houses dozens of animals, mostly primates. It opened as a roadside attraction in 1971 and was originally known as Noell's Ark Chimp Farm.
De Lacure said he's worked in the area for about 14 years and there has not been a problem of this type during that time.
But the sanctuary has had its share of issues.
In the 1990s, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals dubbed it one of the worst roadside zoos in the country. In 1999, the U.S. Department of Agriculture stripped the sanctuary of its license for public exhibitions, citing small, rusty cages used to house the apes.
Two years later, the state declined to renew its license for keeping exotic animals, citing similar concerns.
That license was reinstated after a major renovation in 2003. And in 2008, the sanctuary reopened to the public after receiving a valid USDA license.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155.